MIAMI – Alourrde Pierre stood inside a Little Haiti community center, wringing her hands as she waited for news of her parents and 15 siblings in Port-au-Prince. Her children ask what happened to their grandmother, but she has no answer.
"It is so hard not knowing," said 37-year-old Pierre. "What can we do?"
It is a scene replaying countless times among the roughly 800,000 people in the U.S. of Haitian descent, desperate for any morsel of information about loved ones on the earthquake-devastated nation. Feverish calls, texts and e-mails largely go unanswered as the distraught try to muster a reason to hope as bodies pile up on Haiti's streets.
At a Brooklyn bus stop, 30-year-old Oneil Laurent sobs as he talks of his father, who he's been unable to reach. At the Prestige Barber Shop in Miami, the usual morning chatter was eclipsed by the drone of news updates on the earthquake and the heavy silence of relatives waiting for the worst. And in Evanston, Ill., cab driver Anel Calixte watched CNN at Sweet Nick's Caribbean restaurant, unable to focus on anything but the tragedy.
"You have no life anymore," he said. "You don't know what to feel anymore because your whole family is there. Your whole family."
As news trickled out of Haiti, some poured their energy into relief efforts, joining Americans with no connection to the country who collected bottled water, canned goods, medical supplies and money. Others bowed their heads in prayer or sat transfixed by their TVs.
People did what they could to mobilize aid to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. The U.S. dispatched ships, helicopters, planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit. New York cabdrivers transported relief items to collection points, various search-and-rescue teams headed to the nation to push through the rubble of buildings, and companies prepared to send heavy equipment.
The State Department established a toll-free number (888-407-4747) for people seeking information about family members in Haiti. The government advises that some callers may receive a recording because of the heavy volume of inquiries.
There were brief glimpses of good news, with occasional calls to the nation going through and relatives located safely.
After hours of desperately dialing her parents in Delmas, Jouslene Burrows, who was in the Bahamas, reached her father.
"My mummy already got the flu because she spent the night outside," Burrows said. "They told me they are waiting, hoping help will reach them, hoping something good will happen because they have no water, food or electricity."
But for many, the uncertainty was crushing, not only in the U.S.
Nassau, Bahamas housekeeper Rosette Isnealle, 50, prayed that her two daughters enrolled in a Port-au-Prince university are not among the dead.
"I'm terrified," she said. "I can't get in touch with them. All day I have been calling and I can't find communication."
At the Haitian Consulate in Manhattan, diplomats struggling to locate their own families sobbed as they tried to help countless callers. "It is indescribable," said counsel general Felix Augustine.
In South Florida, where the population of about 275,000 Haitians is the largest in the country, some still tried to hold out hope, blaming the lack of contact from relatives on Haiti's poor communications infrastructure. But it was growing harder by the minute.
As community organizers in Miami's Little Haiti tried to develop response plans, 29-year-old Katia Saint Fleur scoured Facebook, tears welling in her eyes as she sought information about relatives.
"Please if you can contact us any way, do so," she wrote on a cousin's page. "We are going crazy trying to reach you guys."
Edeline Clermont of Miami got word that her 12-year-old nephew was dead. The boy's parents, brother and sister are unaccounted for. And all told, she has more than 20 relatives in Haiti she has been desperately trying to reach.
"I didn't sleep at all. I just lay there, waiting for answers," she said with tears in her eyes. "I'm afraid that everybody is gone."