Officials can't reach two UF students currently in Haiti

Candy Ganyo stops to pray with Hermeline Blanc, 23, a University of Florida senior and internal vice president of the United Haitian Students of Florida, at UF's Turlington Plaza Wednesday, January 13, 2010. Blanc teamed up with Club Creole, a Haitian club at UF, to collect donations for the recent earthquake in their home country of Haiti. She said she's been calling her family in Haiti all night and hasn't been able to reach them.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 11:32 p.m.

Two University of Florida professors working in Haiti are safe and being evacuated today, but officials were unable to reach two UF Documentary Institute students there.

Jon Bougher and Roman Safiullin are shooting a documentary about the work of an aid organization called Planting Peace. Documentary Institute director Churchill Roberts was unable Wednesday to contact the students, who had been staying at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

"Obviously, our concern is we want to find out about their welfare," he said.

Haiti was hit Tuesday by a devastating 7.0 earthquake near Port-au-Prince. Planting Peace president Aaron Jackson said the group was able to reach John Dieubon, its Haiti director, who was working with the students, but a bad phone connection made them unable to understand him. They hadn't been able to reach other numbers.

"We've been calling down there every 10 minutes and we can't get any of our offices to pick up the phone," he said.

The two faculty members who work with the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are Edward Hanlon, an agronomist with UF's research center in Immokalee, and Florence Sergile, an assistant instructor in international programs coordinating Haitian activities.

They arrived Monday as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project. They are both safe and will be evacuated this morning, said Walter Bowen, acting director of IFAS international programs. They had returned at the time of the quake to their hotel, he said, which escaped major damage.

They were supposed to be working on an agricultural project testing soil, he said, but will now be flying to Washington, D.C., to debrief officials about the quake.

UF President Bernie Machen sent an e-mail Wednesday afternoon to students, faculty and staff about university connections to the earthquake. The e-mail provided contact information for UF's counseling services for students in need of emotional support.

"The University of Florida has numerous connections with Haiti - not just scholarly ones, but also personal connections between UF students, faculty and staff and their family and friends there," he wrote. "We offer our greatest sympathies and hopes to all."

A candlelight vigil scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday will now recognize the concerns of those suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake, Machen wrote in the e-mail. The vigil will be held at the Reitz Union amphitheater.

The students in Haiti are seeking master's degrees in journalism as part of the Documentary Institute, a documentary film program being phased out due to budget cuts. Roberts said the students had arrived Sunday and were expected to return Tuesday or Wednesday.

They had visited Haiti several times before and had returned to further flesh out the story, he said.

"They really make a good team," Roberts said.

Bougher, a native of Weare, N.H., received a sociology degree from Ithaca College, according to the Documentary Institute Web site. Safiullin is a native of Russia who studied film at the University of Central Florida.

Jackson said the late-afternoon time of the quake meant the students were likely in Port-au-Prince. But he said he assumed the students were with Dieubon and the native Haitian had arranged for their safety.

"He knows how to handle it when a situation goes astray, because of his experience dealing with craziness in Haiti," Jackson said.

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