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Local Haitians desperate for news of relatives

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."

Two priests are among people with ties to the Washington area who have not been heard from since the earthquake. The Rev. Arsene Jasmin, who headed Haitian outreach for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington was on a retreat in his native Haiti, said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. Jasmin, who lives at Sacred Heart Church in Columbia Heights, left on Monday. He was sent from the Port au Prince diocese in 2007 to minister to the Haitian community in the Washington area, which Gibbs estimated numbers about 20,000 -- 80 percent of whom are Catholic.

His predecessor also was unaccounted for. The Rev. Andre Pierre worked and lived here for years before returning home in 2007.

Ten students from George Mason University, who were on a mission to Haiti for McLean Bible Church, were reported safe. Two students and two employees from Blue Ridge Community College in Harrisonburg, Va., in Haiti for a week-long outreach program, also were reported safe.

From a distance of 1,400 miles, the not knowing was excruciating.

"Crying, that's all we can do," said Nellie Joseph, 66. "We love Port au Prince, we love the capital."

A cab driver who lives in Silver Spring, Joseph said she has been unsuccessfully trying to reach relatives in Haiti since she learned of the quake.

"I just can't contact nobody," she said. "It just rings and hangs up. I have my cousins, my nieces, my brothers, uncle, aunt. I don't hear anything. I just follow CNN."

For Haitians able to get online via computers or handheld devices, Facebook has served as a vital connection for news of loved ones lost and found.

Arielle Salomon, 21, Jean-Baptiste's daughter, who returned to Silver Spring Monday from a visit to Haiti, posted fretful status reports about her missing father in Port au Prince. Finally, he posted a status report of his own: "We r all fine baby don't worry." He posted some photos of the devastation taken with his BlackBerry.

Many others were still searching. Some posted phone numbers and addresses of missing relatives. "Pls can you do me a hugeeee favor," one man wrote on the page of a woman in Haiti, asking her to call a number there. "His name is Henry debrosse let me know what happens when you call and if you could get nws. we are really worried."

As the extent of the loss grew more evident through the day, many thought back to people and places that are no more.

Phara Rodrigue, who was born in Haiti and lives in Alexandria, returned from a Christmas trip to Haiti a week ago.

"We took pictures by the palace, we took pictures by the cathedral, and in just seven days, those buildings have been destroyed," Rodrigue said.

While in Haiti, she attended a Catholic gospel music concert at the Rex Theatre in Port Au Prince. Sitting nearby was the city's archbishop. This morning, she learned that the prelate was among the dead in the Haitian capital. "I can't believe it . . . ." Rodrigue said. "He was one row from us."

Jean-Baptiste said it was hard to comprehend that the city's major landmarks had disappeared in a flash.

"These things, they've been there forever," she said. "Especially the cathedral and the palace. All the funerals, my father's funeral was there. All the baptisms. These are fixtures."

Several local Haitian Americans said the gruesome television images of once-familiar places are unrecognizable.

"There's so little left, I see the name on TV, but it doesn't look like anything that was before," said Nadia Dubuche, 46, of Silver Spring, who was born and raised in the Carrefour neighborhood, one of the hardest hit in the earthquake.

Tuesday night was a sleepless one for Dubuche and her family, who stayed up all night trying to reach relatives in Haiti. They took turns at the phone, frantically dialing over and over.

"We couldn't get through. There was no contact, no electricity," said Dubuche, who tried calling several dozen times while watching television news before she had to leave for a late-night nursing shift. "My mother didn't sleep at all. She just kept trying all the different numbers over and over."

Dubuche and her family were among the fortunate. Wednesday morning, Dubuche's mother finally got word from a family member.

"All he said was, 'They're okay,' but not everyone is confirmed," Dubuche said. "And no one knows what they lost, how bad the damage was for them, what's still left."

Dubuche belongs to Eglise Baptiste du Calvaire in Adelphi, one of the largest Haitian churches in the Washington suburbs, with more than 500 attendees weekly. She said her church had been preparing for one of its frequent relief trips to the country later this month.

"We had prepared food and clothes for people after a recent hurricane and after a school collapsed. We even sent the truck with the supplies already. We were just preparing to go and help distribute."

There's no word whether the truck survived the earthquake, and now, in any case, the church will have to prepare an even larger mission trip in response to the temblor.

Islamic Relief USA, this country's largest Muslim relief organization, announced that it would work in coordination with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to fly $1 million in aid to Haiti. The humanitarian group is based in Alexandria.

At the Haitian embassy Wednesday morning, community leaders met to strategize on how they could help.

"We would like to be part of the first response," said Albert DeCady, chairperson of the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Committee, a consortium of organizations that formed in response to a series of hurricanes two years ago.

DeCady said local Haitians were hoping to coordinate with larger relief organizations going to Haiti and offer their help as soon as Wednesday night.

"We have the doctors, we have the engineers, we have the people who can go get their hands dirty, we have people who can go be a translator. But when it comes to the heavy machinery that we need, we just don't have that capacity."

Raymond A. Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, said information is sketchy, and might be for some time.

"We are in the assessment stage," he said. "God has given. God has taken away. Let's work with the living."

With communications so limited, some Haitian Americans said they were having trouble imagining the scale of the catastrophe.

"The whole community's simply dumbfounded," said Marc Christophe, director of the Haitian Institute of Washington, D.C. "It's impossible to comprehend what has happened."

Given the difficulty of placing calls to Haiti, most Haitians in the Washington area were calling and e-mailing one another to check in.

"We're just sharing, commiserating," he said. "We feel this is a lot of pain and suffering."

Staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Henri Cauvin, Jonathan Mummolo, Michael E. Ruane and William Wan contributed to this report.

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