Their people are sick, hurting and maybe dying, and they've been out of touch for hours, sometimes days. The phones that kept them connected to loved ones in New Orleans have either failed or run out of batteries -- like everything else in the city.
The last time Mikalyn Valentine of Waldorf talked to her mother, the older woman was gasping for air, having an asthma attack. Since the levees broke, Teresa Ruiz hasn't been able to contact her "stubborn" aunt, who refused, as always, to run from the hurricane. Cedric Warren of Suitland has been out of touch with his wife's grandmother since Monday, his uncle Darren since Saturday.
"I can't even focus," said Warren, 25, who moved from New Orleans two weeks ago. "I'm hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
Across the Washington region, transplants from New Orleans, and those with strong ties, have taken to telephones and the Internet in often-futile attempts to find someone who can tell them the status of a loved one. Many are irritable and frustrated at media outlets that appear to be obsessed with looting and at the seemingly slow pace of rescue efforts.
"We don't understand why there are people standing on bridges with no food or no water," said Jane Hamilton, 27, who moved to the District three years ago.
"We feel like much more can be done that is not being done. A lot of people are starting to think, 'Are they really doing everything they can?' Just get the people some food and water," Hamilton said.
The images of death and destruction broadcast round-the-clock on cable news channels can seem distant and surreal. But for those who watch from afar as their homes, high schools and churches are engulfed by water, 1,000 miles can feel like inches. Add missing loved ones to the equation, and everything else becomes secondary.
"I don't know if the American people realize the magnitude of this. It's all-consuming," said Jeremy Broussard, a New Orleans native who attends Howard University Law School. He's collecting donations, calling friends and asking Capitol Hill for assistance. "This is almost like our 9/11 and our tsunami combined. It should have the same response."
People have begun pooling resources, planning for relatives to come and live with them and organizing prayer vigils and fundraisers. There is recognition that although the government will do some things for survivors, much of the heavy lifting in caring for loved ones will fall on their shoulders.
Valentine, of Waldorf, grew up in New Orleans. She has worried about her mother, 59, and grandmother, 90, since they decided it would be safer to ride out the storm in a hospital than to risk leaving town.
Her mother is an asthmatic, and her grandmother is a double amputee. The hospital was full when they arrived, and they were sent to a Holiday Inn across the street, next to City Hall.
She was with them, on the phone, when the lights flickered and a transformer serving the Superdome blew. On Tuesday, during their last conversation, her mother said the water was rising. Valentine hopes they made it to one of the buses that are evacuating people.
"I can't sleep. I can't eat," said Valentine, 40, who retired from the Air Force a year ago. "I'm in limbo. I feel so helpless. I want them to come and reside with me."
Warren, who has two relatives missing, knows what Valentine is going through. He has a car, clothes and furniture in New Orleans, and he's sure that they have been swallowed up. But the stock trader said his only worry is about the people of New Orleans, his family and others.
He's particularly concerned about the way the city is being portrayed.
"All they're showing is the ignorant people looting," he said. "It's causing people not to be sensitive to the needs of the people of the city. This is my home town. And it seems that people are taking this lightly, like we're a bunch of ignorant people who didn't leave."
Ruiz, of Bowie, pleaded with her aunt to evacuate the fifth-floor apartment of her retirement building near the French Quarter.
The answer, as always, was no. But it was comforting to hear her voice -- until the levees broke. Since then, the calls do not go through, and no one who answered her postings on the Internet had any news about her aunt.
"She said, 'God is going to bless me,' " Ruiz said of her aunt. "I told her, 'You've got to give Him a little help.' "
In a frantic posting on a New Orleans-related Web site, Ruiz wrote: "[S]he lives at 2110 Royal St. Apt. 519, last spoke to her 8/30 a.m. before the levee's broke, she needs to be evacuated . . . to Houston please anyone, please go get her, please call me."
She's still waiting.