News - or lack of it - tortures local relatives

By David Abel and Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / January 14, 2010

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When his cellphone rang yesterday in his Somerville office, Guerlince Semerzier’s eyes widened as he recognized a phone number from Haiti. The Somerville Haitian Coalition board president excused himself from a meeting so he could take the call, then returned minutes later, biting his lower lip.

A friend had called from near the capital, Port-au-Prince, telling him that six of her relatives died in the massive earthquake that rocked the Caribbean nation a day earlier.

“I think that as more news comes out of there, it will be very sad,’’ he said, fighting tears.

It was a day of anguish for local Haitians, the nation’s third-largest Haitian population. As the region mobilized to support relief efforts, people constantly checked their phones for messages, hoping for any word from loved ones in the stricken country. Many calling from the Boston area heard only busy signals or a recording saying they could not be connected.

At the Haitian consul general’s office on Boylston Street, Vice Consul Jean Joseph Leandre reached his father early yesterday in Port-au-Prince and was relieved he had survived unscathed. Then he learned his mother-in-law had perished when her house collapsed, and a sister-in-law lost both legs.

“The house she lived in crumbled,’’ Leandre said, referring to his mother-in-law. “She did not have time to get out.’’

Marie Jean-Louis spent the day hoping to hear from her brother, who flew to Haiti last week to oversee the building of a health clinic in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Like thousands of other Haitians in Boston, Jean-Louis repeatedly tried to reach relatives after a massive earthquake a day earlier.

“I am horrified, petrified, numb,’’ Jean-Louis said. “I don’t know what to think. Right now, we’re not getting any news. No e-mail, no phone. I have no way to explain how I’m feeling. We’re just extremely worried.’’

Leaders of the Boston area’s Haitian community gathered in clusters to organize relief efforts and console one another. The city dispatched counselors to public schools with substantial numbers of Haitian students, and announced it would set up a crisis center today in Dorchester to help local families seeking information and assistance.

At a meeting last night at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, government officials, church leaders, and community groups announced plans to help the relief effort.

US Senator John F. Kerry told the crowd of about 400 that Navy ships were en route to Haiti carrying rescue helicopters, relief supplies, and military units specializing in rescue missions in disaster areas.

“The first planes are already on the ground,’’ Kerry said.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley told the crowd that the Boston Archdiocese will hold a special collection for earthquake victims. Parishes can do the collection this weekend or on Jan. 30 and 31.

The funds will go to Catholic Relief Services, which O’Malley said has dedicated $5 million to the effort so far.

“Here in Boston, we want to do as much as humanly possible,’’ O’Malley said.

Haitian Americans United, a local nonprofit, has set up a relief fund with Citizens Bank. Supporters can donate at any local branch.

Other nonprofits accepting donations include the International Red Cross, Partners in Health, and Catholic Charities.

Jean-Samuel Merlain of Milton attended last night’s meeting and called the local relief efforts a work in progress.

He and his wife, Nirva, have not been able to reach their relatives in Haiti. “I’m devastated,’’ he said. “I can’t describe how it feels right now.’’

Governor Deval Patrick told the group that the state public health and public safety departments are ready to assist and are awaiting instructions from the Obama administration.

State Representatives Marie St. Fleur and Linda Dorcena Forry organized the meeting at the cathedral.

“It’s a tragedy,’’ Forry, a Dorchester Democrat and a Haitian-American, said in an interview. “I’m hoping people remain calm and we redouble our efforts. This is basically our neighbor, separated by the ocean.’’

She has family in Haiti, including her father’s brothers and sisters. To her knowledge, she said, they are safe.

Forry praised the efforts of President Obama but said Haiti was too often an afterthought under the previous administration. “For eight years, Haiti has been right next to us, and no one has paid attention,’’ she said.

At a meeting in Mattapan Square, some 50 business owners, clergy, social service providers, and others established what they are calling the Massachusetts Haitian-American Earthquake Relief Task Force, said Jean Marc Jean Baptiste, executive director of Haitian-American Public Health Initiatives in Mattapan. He said the group created teams for counseling, postdisaster management, and emergency needs, which he said include water, tents, and blankets.

He plans to lead a team that will fly to Haiti within the next few days. “There’s a lot of work to do,’’ he said.

Jean Jeune, coordinator of the Cambridge Haitian Services Collaborative, said he was meeting with city officials to set up an information center for Creole speakers. He said much of his family remains in southern Haiti and he had not heard directly from them.

“I’ve never seen something like what we’re seeing on TV,’’ he said. “It’s unbelievable, and with the lack of water and all kinds of diseases, things are going to get bad if there isn’t quick action.’’

An employee at the Sturbridge Worship Center said that five church members on a mission trip to Haiti are fine.

The group, which included a 16-year-old, said “the earth was shaking pretty hard, and in the building, all of the things were falling off the shelves,’’ said Sandra Kraft, adding that the five saw a church collapse, killing 12 people inside.

John McHoul, a Christian missionary who grew up in Weymouth and has worked in Haiti with his wife for more than 20 years, posted photos on his blog of the destruction of his home and the mission where he works. He said his family was unhurt.

In his blog, he described the damage to the mission: “The wall on all four sides of the boys’ house has collapsed. There is significant damage to the wall on two sides of the girls’ house and at the women’s center and at my house. We, of course, have no city power and no water, due to broken pipes. The inside of all the houses are littered with broken glass, and whatever was on the shelves now is on the floor.’’

The crisis in Haiti reached the area’s college students, too.

Britney Gengel of Rutland, a student at Lynn University in Florida, was among the missing.

Her parents did not want to talk last night, saying, “We really need to keep our phone line open.’’

Kim Thurler, Tufts University spokeswoman, said five students and two faculty members from the Fletcher School had been doing research in Port-au-Prince involving microfinance. None suffered injuries, she said. “We’re obviously very relieved.’’

Northeastern’s Haitian Student Union is coordinating a collection of clothing, canned goods, and school supplies to send to Haiti.

Wilner Auguste, founder of Mattapan-based Haitian-Americans United Inc., spent yesterday frantically calling relatives in Port-au-Prince, but he had yet to hear from any loved ones, including his brother, a nephew, and an aunt. One of his brothers-in-law, Dr. Gabrielle Timothee, is the country’s director of the Ministry Of Health, he said.

“We are very concerned about him because we heard that most of the state buildings are gone,’’ Auguste said. “We are afraid that he was in one of them.’’

At the meeting at the Somerville Haitian Coalition, Berlande Edouard, 39, of Medford, started sobbing. Her parents live in Port-au-Prince.

“I’m just trying to find out about them,’’ she said, “but I haven’t heard anything from them since this happened.’’

In Dorchester, Ginette Antoine, 64, of Dorchester, stood in line to buy more cellphone minutes so she could try again to call her former husband, brother, and other kin.

“I can’t get any news right now, and it’s just terrible waiting and not knowing,’’ she said.

David Abel can be reached at Globe staff writers Meghan Irons, Matt Viser, James Smith, and Travis Andersen, along with Globe correspondent Julie Balise, contributed to this report.