Waiting for News From Haiti in Brooklyn

BY Ray Suarez  January 15, 2010 at 9:55 AM EDT

BROOKLYN, N.Y.–The Haitians and Haitian-Americans of New York can see the newsstand photos of unimaginable suffering. They watch hour after hour of the television coverage that is now flowing freely from Port au Prince.

For most of us, that coverage tells everything we need to know… the who, what, where, when, why. For the Haitians of Brooklyn, that’s not nearly enough.

The rumbling from underground took down power lines, transmission lines, and the basic underpinning of power and communications. Those tremors struck at the heart of the worldwide communications tool of the poor: the cell phone.

Here and there you can find people in Flatbush who have gotten through during a random few minutes of service, checking on who is hurt and who is not, who is accounted for and who is still missing. When that phone call ends, an anxious relative in Brooklyn often does not know when their endless speed-dialing will get them through again.


Radio Soleil D’Haiti, Sun of Haiti Radio, is tucked into a storefront on a commercial street in Flatbush. Today the front reception area was jammed with people speaking Haitian Creole, sometimes into multiple phones. I met a young nurse, Haitian-born, Brooklyn-educated, who passed by to see what people knew, whether new sources of intelligence were opening on the island.

Fabienne Jean was admirably composed. Her father, who brought her to Brooklyn from Haiti in 1984, was back in the island nation for a visit that began just before New Year’s Day. In a tough Port au Prince neighborhood, he had been shot, and admitted to a nearby hospital for treatment. One bullet hurt his arm, another lodged close to his lungs, too close for Haitian doctors to safely extract it. Jean’s father planned to come back to Brooklyn and head right to the hospital for the surgery he couldn’t get in Haiti.

Tuesday, he was discharged. Then the ground began to shake. For Fabienne Jean, a few successful phone calls over the course of 73 hours have not been enough to figure out where her father is now.

After the front door of the hospital, the trail goes cold. As she tells me the story she gets a catch in her throat, and quickly wipes a forming tear from the corner of her eye. An aunt, who owns a popular Brooklyn restaurant, is missing. A cousin is hurt, but will be OK.

Jean’s brother has been seen safe and sound by a relative since the quake, but no one knows where he is now. “I know he made it,” Jean said, “but still, I’d like to hear his voice, you know?”

Felipe Doussou was born in Brooklyn. He’s watched as his Haitian-born parents have stayed up around the clock, making repeated attempts to get a phone call through. One branch of the family should be OK, it is based far from the epicenter of the quake. Another branch is in the heart of one of the worst-effected areas.

I asked Doussou if his parents had already started to come to terms with the idea that some have died, given the terrible scenes of mass death now coming here from Haiti. He smiled, “We’re optimistic. We’re waiting for the phones to work again.”

As a neighborhood folk hero, and one of the best-known members of the community, Ricot Dupuy of Radio Soleil D’Haiti, is doing what he can to get information in Creole out to a waiting community. His station is carrying the signal of a sister station in the Haitian capital, with occasional interruptions for news bulletins in Brooklyn. He’s barely slept since the quake, and talks to me in a radio announce booth at the end of a long corridor jammed with station people, neighbors looking for help, and the world’s press looking for a story.

Dupuy tells me the magnitude of the tragedy hasn’t sped up the response from New York, one of the largest populations in the Haitian diaspora, but slowed it down. He expects the necessary coordination to come together in the coming days to more closely resemble the aid that came pouring out of Brooklyn in 2008, when Haiti was hit with five hurricanes and tropical storms in one terrible season.

New York City Councilman Mathieu Eugene is the first Haitian-born politician elected to the city’s legislature. He too is a veteran of the hurricane relief emergency effort, and has been disappointed to find that the systems and structures to get help to Haiti has to be built every time from scratch.

For now, he says, even if all the medicine, food, water, and shelter Haiti needed started pouring in, there is no way the country could handle it. So much infrastructure is now rubble even the decency and charity of governments and individuals around the world won’t be enough to save the struggling people of Haiti.

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