In Miami's Little Haiti, frustration and fear mount among kin of quake victims

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A16

MIAMI -- In this city's Little Haiti, anxious text messages relay the news.

From under the earthquake's rubble, a relative punches into a cellphone: "I'm trapped." Survivors running out of water plead for someone to help. Often the messages are just inquiries: Has anyone heard from this friend, that family member?

The earthquake in Haiti has dismayed television viewers across the United States. But many people here are unnerved not just by their closeness to the site of the disaster but also by the difficulty of responding before it's too late. Bottlenecks have kept many supplies and rescuers from getting to Haiti and, more personally, prevented Haitian Americans from answering requests from stricken relatives.

In a demonstration of concern, Vice President Biden made two stops in Little Haiti on Saturday, promising government and church leaders that help was on the way for the residents of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

"On behalf of the administration, our hearts ache for you," Biden told about 30 officials gathered Saturday morning at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

Marie Etienne, a nursing professor at Miami Dade College, attended one meeting. She has been frustrated because a group of hundreds of Haitian American nurses that she organized has been unable to reach the island.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "We see things on TV, and we feel powerless."

The sense of danger that comes with each passing hour is acute. Over the past few days, this is what Rasha Cameau, 40, the manager of a Haitian cultural center here, has learned via text messages from her sister:

Her elderly parents, their house flattened, have no food.

Her cousin, who had sent the text message alerting people that he was buried in the rubble, died before he could be rescued.

Her uncle is dead, too.

"I keep telling my parents that help is coming so they won't lose hope," she said, tearing up.

Her husband has volunteered to join rescue efforts, and she is helping through the city of Miami, her employer.

But, she said, "My dad keeps saying: 'We are going to die here.' "

The urge to assist, nonetheless, has spurred numerous efforts.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Miami is pressing for clearance to bring Haitian children orphaned by the earthquake into the United States in an operation similar to one that brought thousands of Cuban children to this country after the 1959 revolution. The Cuban operation was known as Pedro Pan; the prospective Haitian one has been dubbed Pierre Pan. On Saturday, church officials asked Biden to help clear the way for the flights.

With some predicting another migratory exodus from Haiti, Miami-Dade County is reviewing what it calls a mass migration plan. So far, there have been no signs of organized attempts to flee Haiti.

Grass-roots donations have surged. Every Miami-Dade library, fire station and police district station is being organized to handle the outpouring. Employees at the Walgreens in Little Haiti, where six of 30 workers have yet to hear from relatives in Haiti, have set up a $5 carwash operation to raise money. Corporate donations have funded a call center where Haitian Americans can call home. Community activists are planning to hold a public wake in Little Haiti Sunday night.

Local Haitian radio personality Piman Bouk (Haitian Creole for "hot pepper") said the need to help is felt intensely. Bouk, a Christian, has been on the radio advising people to "forget about the voodoo."

"So many people are in the ground, in the rubble," he said in front of his restaurant in Little Haiti. "They don't eat. They don't drink. They are suffering. If they are still alive, we must say, 'Thanks be to God.' "

"The entire community is emotionally attached to Haiti, and it's been rough," said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), who has convened meetings in the area to coordinate relief efforts. "People really want to do something."

Haitian American employees form the base of a number of big companies in the region, Meek said, many of them at hotels, prompting firms to offer help.

In a blog post last week, Marriott International Chairman Bill Marriott, writing from the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale, said that more than a third of the "associates" at the hotel are Haitian and have been affected by the disaster.

"They are struggling with trying to find out what has happened to their families and loved ones," Marriott wrote. "They have a group get-together for prayer and song every morning and our hearts go out to them all."

Community leaders and others say they hope that the attention to the poverty-stricken nation will last. On his visit Saturday, Biden promised that it would.

He said the Obama administration views earthquake relief as a possibly years-long effort.

"We are there to rescue," Biden told the community leaders. "We are there to secure. We are there to rebuild.

"This president does not view this as a humanitarian mission that is going to have a life cycle of a month. This will be on our radar screen -- dead-center -- long after it is off of the CNN crawl at the bottom of the screen."

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