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Tampa Bay Haitians anxiously await word from family back home

Tampa Bay area Haitians spent an anxious night and all day Wednesday trying to reach relatives and friends in Haiti, many without success.

Joanne Gousse was one of the lucky ones. Gousse, a Tampa teacher, was relieved to reach her father through an internet phone connection early Wednesday afternoon and learn that he, her stepmother and grandmother were uninjured. But their house, she said, was "seriously damaged'' and an apartment building next door that was under construction collapsed.

Her father was on his way to a meeting in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake began. "He had to leave his car and walk home,'' said Gousse, 35. "It wasn't safe to drive and there were too many broken-down structures and there were people panicking everywhere.''

For Haitian-born Gerly Germain, pastor of the Bethanie Seventh Day Adventist Church in north Tampa, the news was even more grim.

He learned that his father had died in the quake.

"It has been a long and difficult day," said Germain, who planned to lead a service Wednesday night at his mostly Haitian church, which attracts as many as 400 worshippers on weekends.

Other Tampa Bay area Haitians spent Wednesday helping with relief efforts.

Micki Morency of St. Petersburg, whose husband, Dr. Yves Morency, is on the board of the Haitian Association Foundation of Tampa Bay, said the group is trying to consolidate efforts to help residents of the earthquake-ravaged island.

"I didn't even sleep last night," she said. "It is so upsetting, and you just feel powerless. You don't know what to do. My phone is ringing off the hook."

Morency said her family received word through a text message that her cousin's 11-year-old son had not made it home from school Tuesday. Her aunt, cousin and a good friend live in Petionville, a suburb about 5 miles from Port-au-Prince, she said.

Wednesday morning, Morency's sister, Marlene Berthelot, and the Rev. Marie Jessie A. Pierre, who run a mission on the island, worried about the children they served. They said their mission feeds about 100 children a day. They wondered whether their clinic, about 10 minutes from Carrefour — where the earthquake is said to have been most intense — is still standing.

"We've been calling and calling, and we can't get through,'' Berthelot said.

Partners With Haiti, a ministry of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, recently brought 17-year-old Nikenson Centatus, a La Gonave resident, to St. Petersburg for hip replacement surgery at St. Anthony's Hospital. He is devastated by news of the quake, said Morency, whose mother is the boy's host in St. Petersburg. She said he was unable to eat after watching television reports of the disaster.

Wednesday morning Nikenson said he was worried about his family and that he has been unable to reach either his sister in Port-au-Prince or his mother on La Gonave.

Jim Stitt, president of Partners With Haiti, said his group has received two e-mails since the quake.

One was from a friend on the Haitian island of La Gonave, where St. Paul's has a yearly medical mission.

"He said things are okay, but that some people had lost their homes,'' Stitt said.

The other e-mail was from Sister Mary Finnick in Port-au-Prince, who runs the Matthew 25 House, where members of St. Paul's ministry stay when they go to the island.

"We're okay,'' Finnick said in the e-mail sent early Wednesday. "Spent the night triaging in the soccer field, but only had what we had in the house and ran out of everything. Three doctors came and the wounds to the heads, legs and feet are just horrible. Yet all are still in the field and are singing.''

Former Florida secretary of health Dr. M. Rony Francois also has been unable to speak to relatives in Haiti.

"Essentially, at this point, we're just hopeful that the humanitarian response from the United States and the international community will be swift, because Haiti has a fragile infrastructure and their ability to respond to an earthquake of this magnitude is challenging,'' said Francois, who now is director of public health for Louisiana.

In Tampa, his mother-in-law, Marguerite Severe, heard from her son, a doctor of infectious disease in Port-au-Prince, that he and his family were safe.

"He told me it's very hard and I have to pray. And they sleep in the yard,'' she said.

Severe, 73, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, said she has numerous nieces, nephews and friends in Haiti.

The Rev. Joseph Myrthil of St. Petersburg, also has been trying to reach his family. Myrthil, who runs a mission in Leogane, about 40 miles from Port-au-Prince, said he has tried unsuccessfully to text and e-mail his brothers, Josue and Robert, in the capital. He said he is collecting medicine and other supplies to take to the ravaged island.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett, who is involved in the same mission through St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, said the congregation is at a loss what to do.

"Right now, we're just desperate for news so we can know how we can respond,'' he said.

The church built and supports St. Francis School in Loiseau, Leogane, he said.

"Right now, we're figuring that somebody has to go down and figure out what we need. We have no idea whether our buildings are still standing,'' he said

The Coast Guard sent two planes out of Clearwater about 3 a.m. Wednesday to assess the island and provide airlift, said Petty Officer Robert Simpson.

Three HH-60 Jayhawk recovery helicopters from Clearwater are also headed to Haiti. Cutters from Miami, Key West, Portsmouth, Va., and Portsmouth, N.H., are en route with food, water and medical supplies.

Parishoners at Christ The King, a Catholic church in south Tampa, are waiting to hear word from Fr. Desinord Jean, one of the founders of Haiti's Catholic radio station, Radio Soleil. Now based in Port-au-Prince, Jean lived at Christ the King while working at Tampa's WBVN-FM station. He also has been a leader in the nonprofit Help Brings Hope for Haiti, Inc.

Partners in Health, the medical organization for the poor co-founded by former Brooksville resident Dr. Paul Farmer, set up an emergency clinic Tuesday night to treat victims of the earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Farmer was in Miami recovering from recent knee surgery when the earthquake hit, said Tricia Bechtelheimer, a friend of Farmer's from Brooksville.

Farmer, who in August was appointed as a United Nations deputy special envoy to Haiti by former President Bill Clinton, planned to fly to New York on Wednesday and then travel with Clinton to Haiti.

The organization's network of hospitals in the central plateau of Haiti, northeast of Port-au-Prince, escaped serious damage, according to an e-mail sent by Partners in Health executive director Ophelia Dahl.

But Dahl also wrote that phone service had been knocked out by the quake and that the organization had not been able to contact all of its doctors and facilities. And she relayed an urgent plea for supplies for its emergency clinic from Louise Ivers, clinical director in Haiti.

"Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS. SOS.,'' Ivers wrote. "Temporary field hospital … needs supplies, pain meds, bandages. Please help us."

Dahl's e-mail included a link for anyone wanting to donate to Partners in Health's relief efforts.

The need for medical supplies will continue to grow worse as more time goes by, said Jared Brown, a co-founder of Project 81, a Tampa Bay organization devoted to delivering basic necessities to Haitians.

Brown is organizing a trip in a few weeks to take medical supplies and medical personnel to the area. His organization is collecting money for supplies.

Brown plans to use a film crew to document the damage in the hopes he might encourage others to help.

"We are going to go deep into it and try to get a visual for people who can't go," he said.

The president of the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay, Derek Lloyd, said the group's members worry about the ability of Haiti's medical community to respond to such a disaster.

"Once we get more information, we as a Caribbean community will get together and support the relief," he said.

He, and others, urge donors to check out charities before giving.

The Florida Attorney General's Office agrees.

"The Attorney General encourages Floridians to offer support to the Haitian community but advises anyone making a charitable contribution to assist earthquake victims to be certain that they are donating to a legitimate charity," said Ryan Wiggins, deputy communications director.

Consumers can find out whether a charity is registered in Florida by calling 1-800-435-7352.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Tampa Bay Haitians anxiously await word from family back home 01/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 11:53am]

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