When his cellphone rang today in his Somerville office, Guerlince Semerzier’s eyes widened as he recognized a phone number from Haiti. The Somerville Haitian Coalition board president walked out of a meeting with local Haitians. When he returned minutes later, he appeared somber, biting his lower lip.
"The telephone lines are slowly coming back, and the news is not good,” he said.
A friend had called from near Port-au-Prince, telling him that six of her relatives had died in the massive earthquake that rocked this Caribbean nation of 10 million.
As the region mobilized to assist in relief efforts, many Haitians in the Boston area have been anxiously waiting for news, constantly checking their phones for messages and repeatedly trying to get through to relatives. Most heard busy signals and messages saying their calls could not be connected, but some got through -- and some learned their worst fears had been realized.
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake Tuesday afternoon wreaked havoc on the Caribbean country. Haitian officials said they feared thousands – perhaps more than 100,000 – may have perished but they had no firm count. News reports described a macabre scene of bodies piled along the devastated streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and said the president's palace, the cathedral, hospitals, schools, the main prison and whole neighborhoods, had been flattened.
President Rene Preval said he believed thousands were killed, and the scope of the destruction prompted other officials to give even higher estimates. Leading Senator Youri Latortue told The Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead, although he acknowledged that nobody really knows.
"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," Preval told the Miami Herald. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."
Meanwhile, back in New England, at the Haitian consulate on Boylston Street, Vice Consul Jean Joseph Leandre said he reached his father Tuesday in the Haitian capital and was relieved he had survived unscathed. Then he learned his mother-in-law perished when her house collapsed, and a sister-in-law had lost her legs.
"The house she lived in crumbled,'' Leandre said, referring to his mother-in-law. "She did not have time to get out."
Consul General Emmanuelle Dupiton said her mother also called from Port-au-Prince on Tuesday and is safe. But Dupiton still has not heard from her grandmother, cousins and aunts.
"We are deeply, deeply saddened by the loss and devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti,'' said Dupiton. "Our thoughts are with all Haitians living abroad."
Haitians living in and around Boston were trickling into the office by the afternoon, hoping to get documents for a quick flight to their homeland.
"Nobody knows what is going on,'' said 29-year-old Clovens Rateau, who said he still has not heard whether his mother and 2-year-old daughter are safe. The phone lines have been jammed and it is difficult to get through. He has heard from other family members in and near Port-au-Prince, but said he cannot sit still without word about his mother and child.
"I just don't know how bad it is,'' said Rateau, who is hoping to get his documents by Tuesday and head to Haiti by Friday.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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