Local Families Worry, Wait for News From Haiti

Local, national and international relief efforts are under way

Haitian-Americans in New York tried frantically Wednesday to reach family and friends in their homeland and learn whether loved ones had survived the powerful earthquake that rocked the Caribbean nation a day earlier.

"When I called my dad on his cell phone, the call did not go through," said Oneil Laurent, 30, who sobbed as he waited at a bus stop in Brooklyn. "I don't know what I can do. It's only me here. All my family is there."

Laurent said that he finally got a call from one of his sisters in Port-Au-Prince, the capital, but that she, too, had been unable to reach their father.

An aid official described "total disaster and chaos" in the the Western Hemisphere's most impoverished country.

The full extent of the damage is still unclear, but Haitian President Rene Preval said today he feared thousands had died. 

Officials feared thousands — perhaps more than 100,000 — may have perished but there was no firm count. As many as three-million people were affected by the quake, the country's most powerful in 200 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Preval called the damage "unimaginable."  The presidential palace in Port-au-Prince was cracked into pieces.

According to census estimates, there are about 232,000 people of Haitian origin in the New York City area, including northern New Jersey and Long Island. There are about 122,000 in the city alone.

Across the tri-state region, Haitian-Americans waited for news about quake victims and survivors as city leaders offered their thoughts , prayers and help to residents and their families abroad.

"This is one of the great tragedies to have befallen any country," Mayor Bloomberg said a press conference today, flanked by Gov. David Paterson and other elected officials.

Paterson said the state is trying to compile a registry of New Yorkers in Haiti and he pledged "all the resources of the state" to help out.

The devastation has basically crippled communications, leaving many to wonder what's happening on the ground.  Twitter and Facebook have been a major source of information for Haitians around the world.

Flatbush, Brooklyn, is home to a large and vibrant Haitian Community, including Radio Soleil, a 24-hour Haitian radio station. Disc Jockey Ricot Dupuy said he has not been able to reach reporters. "There's no phone communication," he said.

An orphanage in Crown Heights, home to the nation's largest Haitian community, said it has been in a black hole of communication with its workers on the island-nation.

"We tried calling every possible number. Every possible cell phone in the organization to see if we could get any contact with them.  We have not gotten any contact with them," an orphanage worker said.

How to Help

President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort to help the people of Haiti overcome the "cruel and incomprehensible" tragedy.

As the international community and local groups scramble to send aid and distribute information on the crisis, the cost of the damage could run into the billions of dollars, aid workers and Haitian officials said today.   UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the United Nations would immediately release $10 million from its emergency response fund.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the city "stands ready to do all it can to help" and that anyone wishing to contribute to relief efforts can do so through the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City by calling 311, which has already taken thousands of calls on Haiti.  

"We saw the world come to our aid back on 9/11," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He said New York now wants to "make sure that the world comes to the aid of the Haitian people."

Bloomberg noted that many Haitians have moved to New York and said they make a "significant" contribution to the city.

The mayor said New Yorkers who want to help quake victims should donate money to established relief organizations rather than trying to send supplies like food and water. He also said New York City police officers and firefighters are ready to go to Haiti if they are needed.

Bloomberg was joined at a news conference in Brooklyn by other elected officials including City Councilman Mathieu Eugene, who is Haitian-American. "This is a very big blow to Haiti," Eugene said.

Eugene, New York City's first elected Haitian councilman, said the city would help coordinate relief efforts. He said the "Haitian people's great resolve would help them get through this difficult time."

He told NBCNewYork he was able to briefly get through to a family member. "He said the streets are completely dark. Completely dark.  He said people are crying, screaming, yelling for help."

Across Flatbush, many concerned Haitians gave up trying to call home and instead gathered at restaurants, stores and community centers to watch news coverage and share information -- and hope.

Watt Augustine, who works at a barber shop in Flatbush, said he has not been able to get in touch with his family in Port-au-Prince.  "I can't get in touch.  My brother and sister each have houses.  The houses were split in two."

Oneil Laurent, 30, sobbed as he waited at a bus stop in Brooklyn. "When I called my dad on his cell phone, the call did not go through.  I don't know what I can do. It's only me here. All my family is there."
Laurent said that he finally got a call from one of his sisters in Port-Au-Prince, the capital, but that she, too, had been unable to reach their father.

Garry Pierre-Pierre, the editor and publisher of The Haitian Times, based in Brooklyn, said he had also had trouble getting word from home. 

“People are in shock,” he said. “They are afraid to go out in the streets for obvious reasons, and most of them can’t get inside their homes. A lot of people are sitting or sleeping in front of the rubble that used to be their homes," he told the New York Times.

A church in New Jersey who had 15 members on a mercy mission in Haiti received extraordinary news Wednesday that everyone was ok.  

Officials at the Trinity United Methodist Church said the group, which had been working northeast of the capital, will fly home soon.

At the Haitian Consulate in Manhattan, staff members sobbed while also trying to field calls from people offering to make donations. Many were unable to reach their loved ones in Haiti.

"The situation is dire," said Felix Augustine, the consul general, who said he hadn't slept all night. "I would say it is indescribable."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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