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Haitian-Americans wait, worry about family back home

From her hometown, in a land ravaged by killer floods, news is traveling slowly.

"I can't tell you how many people in my family died," said 29-year-old Yvana Moss of Tampa. "I don't know yet."

About a week after Tropical Storm Jeanne dealt yet another blow to a weary Haiti, triggering floods that killed at least 1,100 people and left another 1,250 missing, Moss lives and works attached to her telephone.

Moss, a co-manager at Wendy's on N Armenia Avenue, is from Gonaives, in the heart of the disaster, and is one of the estimated 20,000 Haitian-Americans living in the Tampa area.

She only heard from her husband, Berwick Moss, on Wednesday but still awaits word about her two brothers, two sisters and more than a dozen nieces and nephews.

Her father also lives in Tampa and heard from a relative that the sisters might be okay.

Before Wednesday, Moss was too overcome with emotion to work, she said Friday, sitting in the restaurant, determined to tell her family's story even as another manager pleaded with her to help at the register.

"The only thing I do is cry and pray, cry and pray, ask God to help them," she said.

Then on Wednesday, the phone rang, and Moss heard her husband's voice.

But only for a few seconds.

He told her, "Yvana, I'm here in Gonaives, but we need food and water," she remembered him saying through a cacophony of static. Then the line went dead.

"I tried to say, "Where are you at, where should I send food?' But just then the phone died," she said.

Moss returned from a visit to her husband and relatives in Haiti three weeks ago. She showed the smiling faces still beaming from pictures in her cellular phone camera.

The fat baby cheeks of a 6-month-old niece filled one block of the screen.

"We don't know if she died or not," Moss said, frown creases wrinkling her forehead.

"Yesterday, I called someone I know who has a cell phone," she said. Moss asked them to check on her family.

"We are on the roof," they told her, trapped, unable to leave and check on Moss' family.

Moss came to Tampa in 1996 as a resident, sponsored by her father, who was already a U.S. citizen.

She married her high school sweetheart from Haiti in 2000, but was forced to live apart from him while he stayed in Haiti and she returned to Tampa. She applied for his green card the next year. They've been waiting to hear from immigration officials ever since.

Moss' father, St. Louis Chery, has become worn out by years of waiting. He's trying to bring his entire family here, one at a time.

Chery, 69, came to the United States in 1980 on a boat, unable to find work or a way to survive in his country. He said he was granted a visa to stay under then-President Carter's administration.

He obtained his citizenship, but needs to show a certain level of income in order to sponsor his remaining children to come here. Aside from Moss, another daughter and son live in Tampa.

He worked for Tampa's Parks and Recreation Department for more than 21 years before retiring last year, he said, sitting with Moss at the small Wendy's table.

But now he's looking for another job to help his family in Haiti. He blamed a series of corrupt governments in his country for not developing the economy, leaving the people so poor that they cut down acres of trees to make and sell charcoal.

It was the destruction of Haiti's forests _ not only recently for charcoal but also for cane by French colonizers _ that left Haiti so vulnerable to mudslides and flooding.

"I want to take care of my children," Chery said, as Moss returned to the register. The image of his grandchildren's faces haunts him. Phone calls aren't going to console him. He wants to return to Haiti himself.

"I can't sleep," he said. "I love them so much. I love my grandchildren, and they love me. I want to see them with my own eyes."