South Florida’s Haitian community – among the largest outside the island nation – struggled to absorb the extent of the damage from the massive earthquake that hit the island on Tuesday.
The 7.0-magnitude quake was the strongest to hit the region in more than 200 years. It turned hospitals, schools, banks, homes and the presidential palace into crumpled heaps of concrete.
Beneath those ruins lies the unthinkable: the strong possibility that thousands of lives have been lost. Among the confirmed dead: the Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, 63, and at least 14 United Nations peacekeepers.
While an official tally has not yet been released, Haitian President Rene Preval said the count could be “unimaginable.”
“It’s too early to give a number, but I’ve heard 50,000, 30,000,’’ Preval said during an interview with CNN.
Residents of South Florida – home to an estimated 350,000 Haitian-Americans – relied on indirect accounts of what happened during the earthquake and the hours afterward to piece together details about their homeland. They struggled to make direct contact with loved ones. The island’s communications system had ground to a halt.
“We called and called and got nothing. The lines are just dead,’’ said Miami resident Annie Obsaint, who has cousins, aunts and uncles on the island.
Obsaint said her family eventually received a brief call from a cousin who was visiting the island.
That cousin, Bernard Petit-Frere of Cutler Ridge, had yet to hear from his father, who never made it home after the earthquake hit the island.
“He hasn’t heard from his father. His aunt made it home, but the house is totally destroyed. There is no power. The skies were totally black even before the sun went down. The smoke from the debris was so thick that it looked like it was evening,” Obsaint said. “Kids were screaming but there were no rescue efforts.’’
Images of the injured – many covered with debris and blood – streamed across cable news channels and social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, those social network sites proved invaluable in getting information from the island.
“Help Haiti” was among Twitter's top “Trending Topics,” with hundreds of tweets.
First-hand accounts were also posted on blogs.
“Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings “pancaking” down, like I have never witnessed before,’’ said Bob Poff, the Salvation Army’s Divisional Director of Disaster Services in Haiti, in his blog at www.salvationarmyeds.org
Despite the magnitude of the devastation, South Floridians rallied to get help to the island. Early-morning prayer vigils were followed by various community meetings to organize monetary and tangible donations to the island.
Friends forwarded text messages on how to donate to organizations like the Red Cross and Yele Haiti, the relief organization foundation by Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean.
Gov. Charlie Crist pledged emergency personnel and food, as did Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who was appointed by the commission to oversee relief efforts to the island.
County officials have established an information hub for the Haitian-American community at the Edison Little River Neighborhood Center. Some 80 emergency personnel from the county’s fire-rescue unit and seven search and rescue canines were scheduled to arrive in Haiti on Thursday. The county would also consider a resolution to send excess emergency equipment from its inventory to the island.
Irvin Daphnis, vice president of the Haitian Lawyers Association, said his group has formed a task force to help streamline the help needed on the island.
“We’re coordinating that now,’’ Daphnis said. The group has also set up an account with Bank of America to receive donations.
The University of Miami sent a team of medical staff to the island, and continues to accept donations through its program, Project Medishare for Haiti Inc.
The university program has helped train Haitian medical personnel for over 15 years.
“We had a moral imperative to respond,’’ said Dr. Arthur Fournier, the Miller School's associate dean for community health and co-founder of Project Medishare.
Fournier said the university’s staff was coordinating with the Army’s South Command to establish a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, and continued to mobilize volunteers.
In Broward, county employees pledged monetary donations to the American Red Cross through direct financial contributions or payroll deductions. In addition, Port Everglades is waiving all tariff charges for qualifying cargo and the ships delivering relief supplies to Haiti.
“Broward County employees have always been most generous in reaching out to others who need help," Broward County Mayor Ken Keechl said. "Many people living in Broward County come from Haiti, or have family, relatives and friends living there now. We hope that Broward County contributions can help the earthquake victims in Haiti get the life-saving supplies and support that is needed to recover from this terrible disaster."
Haiti, a country devastated by a series of disasters over decades, including several hurricanes, floods, political unrest and the 2008 collapse of a school building, had been warned of a catastrophic earthquake, said Florida International University Professor Grenville Draper.
The island sits on a major fault line and recent tests had shown significant movement along the fault, said Draper, who has studied the geology tectonics of the Greater Antilles, including Haiti, for more than 30 years.
“We have several academic papers, we knew that something like this would happen and those studies were shared with
Haitian officials,’’ Draper said. “But the problem with a place like Haiti is that they have so little social control, and are so unstable politically they never had a chance to do any of the things recommended, such as strengthening building codes.”
The country will be scarred for years by the devastating effects of this earthquake, Draper said, adding, “It’ll take a long time to recover from this.’’
HOW TO HELP HAITI
The U.S. State Department has set up a toll-free number to call for information about family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747.
Text Yele. Wyclef Jean is urging donors to text 'Yele' to 501501 and make a $5 contribution to the relief effort over cell phone. The charge will appear on your phone bill.
Text the Red Cross. Text HAITI to 90999 to make a donation which will be billed to your phone service. You can also Go online to redcross.org and click Donate,
or call 1-800-REDCROSS.
Food For The Poor: Make donations via their website – www.foodforthepoor.org
Congressman Kendrick Meek's U.S. Senate campaign is asking visitors to his website, www.KendrickMeek.com to make a donation to the Red Cross.
National Black MBA Association South Florida: Please send donations in any amount to the National Black MBA Association South Florida Chapter, Inc. ATTN: Valerie Pigatt, Treasurer, P. O. Box 278872, Miramar, FL 33027.
Save the Children. Donate at www.savethechildren.org or make checks out to "Save the Children" and mail to: Save the Children Income Processing Department, 54 Wilton Road, Westport, Conn. 06880
UNICEF. Go online to unicefusa.org/haitiquake or call 1-800-4UNICEF.
Direct Relief International. Donate online at directrelief.org.
Mercy Corp. Go online to mercycorps.org or mail checks to Haiti Earthquake Fund, Dept. NR, PO Box 2669, Portland, Ore. 97208 or call 1-888-256-1900.
Drop off donations of non-perishable food items for people in Haiti at the American Institute School of Health Careers, 3190 North State Road 7, Lauderdale Lakes. Drop off times are Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, please call 954-777-0083.