Local Haitians desperate for news of relatives

The Silver Spring home of Clodette Mompoint is filled with prayer, song and anguish as Haitian Americans pray for the victims of yesterday's earthquake.
By Carol Morello and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 5:56 PM

The news that got through, spotty and sparse in detail, seemed too enormous to comprehend. Port au Prince's main cathedral had collapsed in a devastating earthquake. So had the presidential palace. The biggest grocery store in Haiti was flattened at an hour when it would have been full of shoppers.

When word of loved ones seeped through, it was often grim.

"A friend called -- her mom was stuck in the rubble -- her mom just died," said Arielle Jean-Baptiste, 50, of Silver Spring, who managed to receive text and Facebook messages from friends in Haiti early Wednesday morning. "The son of a friend, he was at the funeral parlor he worked in, he did not make it."

But by mid-day, the trickle of information dried up.

"The ones who have Internet at home, they have a generator," Jean-Baptiste said, adding that she believes they signed off to conserve power.

Similar stories of distress and uncertainty were told throughout the region and the country as anxious Haitian Americans desperately sought to learn whether relatives and friends had survived the 7.0 quake that struck Haiti Tuesday afternoon. Some called local radio stations, hoping for scraps of new information or advice on where to give donations. Most turned to an informal network of friends and relatives here in the United States, some of whom were able to reach Haitians on their cellphones.

That's how Rudolph Chandler, a Haitian-born international health economist who lives in Northwest Washington, heard that an elderly aunt whose house collapsed around her was pulled from the wreckage alive, and is in a hospital.

But no word has come yet about the wife of a cousin who works at U.N. headquarters, said Chandler, who hoped she already had left work when the earthquake struck late Tuesday afternoon. Nor has he heard anything about a cousin who is a surgeon in Port-au-Prince. The doctor is adept at using mobile communications, Facebook and Twitter, making his silence all the more unnerving, Chandler said.

"I'm a little nervous, because it's been more than 12 hours and nothing from him," he said.

Many thousands are missing and feared injured or dead. A Fairfax County search and rescue team left for Haiti Wednesday to help locate people trapped in debris. It is taking 48 tons of rescue equipment, including medical supplies, listening devices and search cameras, as well as six search dogs.

Prince George's County officials announced Wednesday that they are mobilizing a team of about 15, including firefighters, paramedics, building inspectors and engineers to deploy to Haiti if the U.S. State Department approves.

Vernon Herron, director of the county's office of homeland security, said the county would put up its own money, if necessary, to send support. In a statement, County Executive Jack B. Johnson said: "We must help the people of Haiti in their time of need."

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