In Miami’s Little Haiti, nothing to do but work, wait, hope, pray


At the Haitian Relief Information Center hastily set up in the heart of Little Haiti, county social worker Shirley Sieger was, in theory, there to help people seeking information from quake-ravaged Port-au-Prince.

But Thursday there was little she could do, for others or herself. Sieger had been calling the cellphone number of her mother, Olga Marie Dejean, 71, over and over again, to no avail.

She shuddered as she recounted her efforts. Then the tears came. Her colleague, Irene Taylor-Wooten, enveloped her in a hug.

“Come on, baby, come on,” Taylor-Wooten said. “Hang on in there. We gonna pray.”

Haiti’s prime minister has said that the death toll from Tuesday’s earthquake could reach 100,000, but across South Florida, Haitians grappled with the fact that there was no basis for math, no basis for an accounting of the casualties. And so they called Haiti again and again -- and waited and prayed.

Stop almost anyone Thursday in Little Haiti -- the pastel-painted heart of the diaspora north of downtown Miami -- and the chances were good that they were in limbo, waiting.

A few immigrants have made phone contact. Ermitha Beressault, 57, reached a sister Thursday, only to learn that their father had been killed. “I feel terrible,” she said again and again, choking with tears.

The reverberations of the earthquake are being felt more strongly in South Florida than in any other region of the United States.

Haitian immigrants arrived here in large numbers starting in the 1980s, fleeing economic stagnation and dictatorship. The “boat people,” they were called, as many of them sailed in rickety boats. Many making the attempt died at sea. Those who made it to Miami weren’t always welcome. They spoke Creole and French; they were black. People were afraid they carried HIV and tuberculosis.

But time cured much of the ill will. So has the economic success of many hard-working Haitians who have sent their children to college. And the relative prosperity of the Haitian community, estimated at 300,000, has become an essential support to relatives back in the island nation: The World Bank estimates that in 2009 remittances from the U.S. to Haiti totaled $1.22 billion.

At Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, Father Reginald Jean-Mary tried his best to make sense of the catastrophe in an impassioned sermon Wednesday night.

“This is the darkest moment in the history of Haiti . . . God surprised us!” Jean-Mary yelled out to parishioners who listened with grim faces in a church kept purposefully dark.

“Nature surprised us, to remind us that something must be done,” he said -- something more “substantial and concrete” than food and water. Haiti needed better treatment from its neighbors, more selfless leaders -- and even more compassion “from you Haitians who are blessed to be living in the United States.”

The crowd assented with yeses and amens. They sang out, accompanied by congas and bright rolling notes from cheap electric guitars. As Jean-Mary made his way among the crowd, some dropped to their knees, with palms outstretched. Others clutched and waved fistfuls of photos of the missing.

The next morning at the low-slung yellow church, Floridians of all stripes -- white, Cuban, Haitian and others -- trickled in with donations. Donovan Small, an unemployed 54-year-old, walked over a couple of bags full of cereal, canned goods and walnuts.

Small, a Jamaican native, is living in a rooming house and is HIV positive; his face was covered in black splotches. It was unclear how his donations would reach Haiti, but he had to do something.

“When I see the situation over there it just brings pure sadness to me,” he said. “I wish I was working -- I’d bring them even more.”

In the small reception area, volunteer Peggy Boule asked some women if they thought it would be difficult for her to adopt her cousin’s children. She hadn’t heard from their caretakers back in Haiti.

One woman thought it might be easier: “Half the children in Haiti will be orphans now,” she said.

Another disagreed. After all, she said, think of all the records that have been destroyed.

Father Jean-Mary was in a back office, receiving reporters. The Haitian native had much to mourn: Haitian Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, a confirmed casualty, was a good friend.

But Jean-Mary, a compact, friendly man, struck a hopeful note. “The light of God is shining in the darkness. . . . Haiti is not going to perish,” he said.

And as he waited for word about two sisters and a brother still unaccounted for, he began to plan. He would call a cruise line to see if it would house doctors, nurses and engineers on a ship. He would ask if the government could set up a satellite phone center at the church.

Along with praying and waiting, he had to do something.