Miami's anxious Haitian community readies Haiti disaster relief

With more than 350,000 Haitians living in Florida, the emotional shock waves from Tuesday's earthquake are severe. In Miami, community leaders begin to organize Haiti disaster relief.

Alan Diaz/AP
Marleine Bastien (r.) tries unsuccessfully to reach her relatives in Haiti from the "Little Haiti" area of Miami on Monday night.

It did not take long for Jean-Robert LaFortune’s telephone to start ringing with calls from the anxious, the desperate, and the bewildered. “What have you heard?” people wanted to know. “What can we do?”

So vast is the scale of the disaster back in his birthplace of Port-au-Prince in Haiti that Mr. LaFortune, a prominent activist leader within Miami’s Haitian-American community, was at a loss to know what to recommend.

“Many people are calling loved ones on the island to learn their conditions, but have not been successful,” he said Tuesday night. “Not a single one that I know has established contact. There’s a lot of panic in Miami.”

With more than 350,000 Haitians living in Florida, the emotional shock waves from Tuesday’s earthquake have stretched far beyond Hispaniola’s own shores.

In Miami’s Little Haiti district – whose residents have mobilized aid to Haiti so many times before, following tropical storms, mudslides, hurricanes, and floods – the scale of the latest natural disaster brought despair and disbelief, said LaFortune, sending them scuttling to their churches to pray, or gathering around their televisions in shocked silence.

“It’s like there is an omen hanging over Haiti; this is what most Haitians believe,” he said. “It’s like nature has revolted against us. We don’t know what we have done, what crime we have committed for this to happen.”

As president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, an umbrella organization made up of 15 community-based and advocacy groups in Miami, LaFortune was set to meet Wednesday morning with the Haitian consul to discuss how Florida’s Haitian diaspora might come to the aid of their countrymen once again by donating food, clothing, money, and manpower. Hopes are that aid organizations already on the ground in Haiti will expedite rescue and recovery efforts.

“We’ll be making an assessment of the needs, but it’s going to be a very complex operation that will have to be put in place to bring some kind of relief to the victims. Our hands are going to be very, very full,” he said.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Miami set up an immediate appeal for donations and planned a special mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary this morning, to pray for victims of the earthquake. Among those due to attend were students of the cathedral school, which serves the Haitian community in North East Miami-Dade.

Many headed immediately last night to Notre Dame D'Haiti, a church considered the heartbeat of Miami’s Haitian community. Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado joined them. “We feel their pain,” he said, adding that city firefighters trained in search and rescue techniques stood ready to be dispatched to the disaster zone if asked to go.

At WLQY radio station, listeners called in to plead for news or to share their accounts of loved ones lost. Between bulletins, radio host Marc Jendy dialed his elderly mother in Port-au-Prince over and over, burying his head in his hands as the telephone line came up dead.

Past relief efforts for Haiti – including in 2008, when four hurricanes hit in succession – have failed to unite all sectors of the Haitian-American community in south Florida, says LaFortune.

“In Miami we have two Haitian communities living side by side but mutually exclusive of each other. There are the well-to-do, those you don’t see in times of crisis, [and] then there are the others,” he said. “We are hoping that this time, they can all come out and share the pain, share the suffering, do what is right by their homeland and get involved.”


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