UF faculty, students are hearing little out of Haiti, mobilizing relief
Many are desperate to contact family and friends in the country.
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 7:32 p.m.
For University of Florida faculty and students with family in Haiti, Wednesday was a desperate day of waiting. Waiting for a phone call, an e-mail, even a glimpse of a familiar street in news reports from Port-au-Prince.
Take English major Sky Georges, whose family is from Port-au-Prince and who has served as an escort and interpreter for several mission groups making the trip to Haiti.
On Wednesday, hours before the earthquake, Georges put his father on a flight to Haiti. The whole family was gathering because his brother was to be married on Saturday, Georges said.
Since then, he has heard nothing. The phone lines are down. He has tried to reach another contact, the pastor of one of Haiti's largest churches. Nothing. His only news, he said, has come from CNN.
Georges said that since the destruction is so massive, help is going to be needed for months to come.
"I'm hoping that I can get in touch with my family, figure out what is needed to help, and start organizing things here," Georges said Thursday.
"Until then, I will keep praying," he said.
As information about Haiti's devastating earthquake trickles into the U.S., UF student groups, area churches and other local groups are mobilizing to help. UF experts on Haiti say relief efforts will be complicated by overcrowding, government ineptitude and the country's continued recovery from other natural disasters.
"It would have been a tragedy anywhere, but it's going to be more tragic in Haiti," said Gerald Murray, an anthropology professor who recently returned from conducting research in Haiti.
Daniel Lombardo is a second-year medical student working with Project Haiti, a group of UF medical personnel and students who visit Haiti each spring break.
Lombardo said area residents who would like to help now can go to the Web site www.projhaiti.org to make a monetary donation that will be used for supplies that either can be sent to Haiti immediately or that the group will take with it in March.
"We expect to see more people than we've ever seen before, and in even worse conditions," he said.
A Haitian student group at UF, Club Creole, is collecting donations of food, clothing and money. The money and supplies are being donated through the Yele Haiti organization, which musician Wyclef Jean founded in 2005.
Most members of Club Creole have friends or family in Haiti. Some students, such as sophomore psychology major Urielle Renelus, have been able to contact their families to confirm that relatives are safe, but those with family in Port-au-Prince are having a difficult time establishing contact.
"There are so many people I know, and you want to contact people, but there's no way," Renelus said.
Richard Fethiere, a native of Haiti who coordinates agronomy research at UF, spent hours trying to get direct information about family members living in a Port-au-Prince suburb. He finally received a short e-mail Wednesday afternoon from his brother: "We're all OK."
"That was a tremendous relief, but it doesn't tell me anything," he said.
Vesta Anilus, a UF medical student, considers herself lucky. She at least has received a phone call from her brother-in-law, who runs an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. The building was badly damaged, and many of the children were injured, he reported. Because the city's hospital was severely damaged, there was nowhere to take them.
"He was crying and asking if we could get some doctors to come over. I felt awful, but at this point there was nothing I could do," Anilus said.
"I was hoping that hospitals or clinics who heard about the Project Haiti clinic would donate equipment or supplies that we could send now."
Dr. Keith Stone, a UF specialist who has served with Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said the organization posted an urgent message seeking French-speaking field volunteers who were willing to leave immediately to assist in Haiti. Two of the organization's facilities were damaged, and patients were being evacuated from its maternity hospital.
Local churches with Haitian connections such as Trinity United Methodist Church, Grace United Methodist Church and the First Assembly of God are taking part in relief efforts. The North Central Florida chapter of the American Red Cross also is seeking financial donations.
"We want to make sure response efforts have the most impact," said Laura Mager, executive director of the North Central Florida chapter of the American Red Cross.
Creekside Community Church works with Reciprocal Ministries International, an organization that pairs churches in the U.S. with churches in Haiti.
So far, those at Creekside have heard that their sister church in Baraderes, Haiti, seems to be fine, as well as those in the city of Les Cayes.
"You don't know a lot when it's still dark outside. Once the dust is settled and the sun is shining, the full extent of what has happened will be known," said Tom Burgett, a member of the church's Haiti Missionary Team.
UF experts on Haiti said the country's history makes dealing with such a disaster difficult.
Benjamin Hebblethwaite, an assistant professor who teaches Haitian Creole and Haitian studies, said the earthquake was a "demoralizing" development in a country that suffered through four hurricanes in 2008 and had been dealing with water shortages and water-borne diseases.
"It's a massive catastrophe on top of a series of massive natural disasters," he said.
Murray said the dense population of Port-au-Prince only adds to the disaster.
The country's government is unable to provide services even in normal times, he said, so international relief efforts are going to be crucial.
"Haiti is going to be totally dependent on the outside world helping out," he said.
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