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Not knowing fate of loved ones in Haiti quake weighs on Tampa Bay area residents

Gerly Germain spoke with his 72-year-old father for the last time on Tuesday afternoon.

"He talked about his plans to go to Israel to see the place where it all began," Germain, 38, told his parishioners Wednesday night at the Bethanie Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tampa.

Three hours later, a massive earthquake devastated Haiti.

"The earth shook," Germain said, as one hand clutched the podium. "And my father's life went on beyond."

Even in his personal tragedy, Germain still opened the N Florida Avenue church to lead prayer services and comfort those who have not heard from relatives.

Germain got the news just hours after the quake from his stepmother that she had found his father, Joseph Germain, in a car under a collapsed wall, but others in his congregation were still waiting to hear what happened to loved ones.

Roslene Theodore, 30, who was among the group of 75 people at Germaine's prayer service, has been trying to reach her close friends in Port-au-Prince since Tuesday evening.

"Most of them only have cell phones," said Theodore, a nurse from Tampa. "So we can not reach them right now."

She is gathering a group of Haitian doctors and nurses from the Tampa area to travel to the island next week.

"That's what they need most," she said.

People with relatives in Haiti and some who knew little about the island nation were riveted by news of the disaster.

In South Tampa, parishioners at Christ the King Catholic Church waited for word about two missionaries and a onetime resident pastor who now runs Haiti's Catholic radio station.

At day's end they learned that the missionary couple were safe, as they were well outside the earthquake zone.

But they had no word about 42-year-old Desinord Jean, a former church resident who is a driving force behind Radio Soleil. They feared the worst, as Jean lives in a rectory near the national cathedral, which was destroyed.

"He's well liked and a very hard working man, said Monsignor Desmond Daly. "He's the sort of guy people are really drawn to. And he's one of Haiti's church voices."

While the news was brutal for some, for others the horrors were compounded by a failed telecommunications system.

"It's been a terrible day of crying and keeping myself from crying, trying to keep myself functioning at my job," said Marie F. Denis-Luque, who is on the research faculty at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. Denis-Luque could not get information about her younger brother and sister, or her 77-year-old grandmother. "I sort of am preparing myself for the worst, but I don't want to," she said.

The Morency family of St. Petersburg, with relatives in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, received word through a text message that an 11-year-old cousin had not made it home from school. A 17-year-old house guest, in St. Petersburg for hip replacement surgery, could not reach his sister in Port-au-Prince. He could not reach his mother on the island of La Gonave.

"It is so upsetting, and you just feel powerless," Micki Morency said.

A cousin of Haitian President Rene Preval, Serge Preval of Lutz, said, "We haven't heard anything except what's on the news."

Through news reports, Preval learned that the president had survived. "A lot of us are finding friends and family members through Facebook and other social media networks," he said.

Marguerite Severe, 73, heard from her son, a doctor in Port-au-Prince. "He told me it's very hard and I have to pray," she said. "And they sleep in the yard."

Christian Roberts, 23, brews coffee at a Starbucks near Wesley Chapel's Shops at Wiregrass. He has no family in Haiti.

But, he said, "I read the story last night and it is horrible, absolutely terrible."

He and his coworkers are organizing a 5K and 10K run to raise money for the relief efforts.

"I just wanted to do something," he said.

So does Tampa Fire-Rescue, which is sending two canine teams to assist in search and rescue efforts. One of the men, Lt. Roger Picard, was part of the search and rescue at the World Trade Center in September 2001.

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

Three HH-60 Jayhawk recovery helicopters from Clearwater were also headed to Haiti, joining cutters from Miami and Key West that brought food, water and medical supplies.

Medical relief organizations, established to combat Haiti's crippling poverty, are collecting supplies and setting up emergency clinics.

The needs are enormous, said Dr. M. Rony Francois, former Florida secretary of health.

"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, now director of public health for Louisiana.

Beyond the urge to give, spiritual leaders expect the disaster to exact an emotional toil, not unlike the tsunami of 2004.

"People always ask, "why would a merciful God do such a thing?" said Daly of Christ the King. "And the answer is, it is a challenge to our faith."

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Richard Danielson, Dan DeWitt, Izzy Gould, Shelley Rossetter and Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

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Not knowing fate of loved ones in Haiti quake weighs on Tampa Bay area residents 01/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 10:42am]
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