Yola Providence of Lawrence was at the supermarket Tuesday when someone asked her if she heard the news about her native Haiti.
She learned a 7.0-magnitude earthquake had just flattened the nation's capital city of Port-au-Prince. The Parliament building, along with dozens of hospitals, schools and churches were leveled. Countless homes collapsed. Thousands were reported dead, thousands more were reported injured.
"I just went crazy," she said.
Soon after, Providence, along with the estimated 5,000 Haitians living in the Merrimack Valley, began seeing televised images of the devastation in their homeland some 1,700 miles away. She, like many others, spent hours upon hours trying to reach family and friends back home on their land lines and cell phones, by text messages and by e-mail.
For Providence, some news finally came yesterday — one of her cousins was killed when the building he lived in collapsed.
"All you can do is pray," Providence said, as she cried. "We've been through kidnapping, political infighting and hurricanes, but it has never gotten this bad."
After centuries of violent political upheaval, crushing poverty, and more than its fair share of natural disasters, the island nation was dealt its most devastating blow. The catastrophic earthquake was centered just outside Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million mostly impoverished people living in poorly constructed buildings.
The number of dead could be in the hundreds of thousands by some accounts. Haiti's leading senator, Youri Latortue, told The Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead, but conceded that nobody really knows.
"Let's say that it's too early to give a number," President Rene Preval said.
The earthquake spared no one, rich or poor. Preval is homeless, U.N. mission head Hedi Annabi of Tunisia is missing, and Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, 63, was found in the ruins of his office. Senate President Kelly Bastien was among those trapped alive inside the Parliament building, but a day later had stopped responding to rescuers' cries.
For local Haitians, the media is their main lifeline to their homeland, with almost all communication and electrical lines down. The images are horrific: such institutions as the nation's palace and Notre Dame d'Haiti cathedral in ruins; people among the estimated 3 million in need of aid reaching out for help; and bodies lining the streets, some of dead mothers with their lifeless children in their arms.
As difficult as those images are to see, local Haitians said they provide some hope that they may glimpse a family member walking by a camera, proof they are alive. Young Gael Hyppolite is among those watching.
Hyppolite came to Lawrence two years ago. He lives with an uncle and is a senior at the International Academy at Lawrence High. He's used all technology available to try and get through to his parents and brothers in Haiti.
"I keep positive," said Hyppolite. "I just pray that I get a call."
Arnelle Morales came to Lawrence in the 1970s and is praying, too.
"I can't look at the news anymore because I cry. I don't think I have any more tears. I feel the pain with the people of Haiti," said Morales, president of the Haitian Cultural Group.
She only has cousins left in Haiti and has been trying to get in touch with them.
Her country has suffered much. Most recently, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes and tropical storms in 30 days in the fall of 2008. Flooding and mudslides killed an estimated 800 people and devastated crops.
But Morales said the Haitian people have pulled themselves from the rubble before and they will pull through again.
"We have no choice but to overcome it," she said. "The whole world is standing by to help. This is the time we can become one truly child of God and help each other out."
Student's 15 siblings missing
Islande Baptiste said she has "not a clue" about the well-being of 15 brothers and sisters who live in Haiti. Baptiste, a Malden resident who attends Northern Essex Community College and aspires to become a registered nurse, told The Eagle-Tribune she has called countless phone numbers to find out about her loved ones. So far, she has learned nothing. She can't get through.
"I have to get in touch with them. I've been calling since last night," she said. "I try really hard."
Baptiste already knows that the hospital in Port-au-Prince, where she was born almost 40 years ago, was leveled. When she saw the image of a man holding a baby, she said, "I was crying. That's what's happening now."
Baptiste, who lives with her husband and son, has been in the United States for 20 years and is now an American citizen. She has worked as a medical assistant in several hospitals, she said, and she also knows sign language for the deaf. She said she has gone on missionary trips to help deaf people in Haiti.
Baptiste's mother is deceased. Her father lives in the United States. A brother who lives in America, she said, plans to fly to Haiti on Friday to find out about the rest of their family.
It's 'killing me'
Paul "Alex" Louis hopes his mother, sister and many friends are alive and well in the Port-Au-Prince area.
"We keep trying to call. ... But all we know right now is what CNN is telling us," said Louis, a certified nurse's assistant at Mary Immaculate Nursing/Restorative Center in Lawrence. "We keep watching and waiting but we haven't had any contact."
Adding to his anguish are the images of devastation flashed on TV and the Internet. "It's gut-wrenching," he said.
Louis came to the United States 20 years ago, but his mother, Lea, 81, and sister Marie, 41, still live right outside Port-Au-Prince.
His sister is a teacher there and his family is very involved with the Complexe Orquide, an elementary school in the vicinity of the earthquake.
Several years ago, Louis was recognized by his Mary Immaculate co-workers. He sent $500, half of his prize-winnings, back to Haiti to help children at the school. To date, he regularly sends back any extra money to help the children, he said.
About 400 children attend the school, some of whom attend after-hours classes because they are among the country's poorest. He wonders if his sister was able to leave the school before the earthquake hit or if she and his mother are separated. Radio reports he's listened to describe scenes of "dead and live bodies" coupled together.
Along with his family, Louis also fears for the lives of children and the two dozen school staffers.
"We don't even know if the school is still there," he said. "We just don't know. That is what's killing me."
Talk to mom just before quake
Every day at 4 p.m., Jean Alisman of Lawrence had called his parents back home in Haiti. Tuesday was no different. He was devastated to see the aftermath just an hour after their conversation.
"This is the worst I've seen in my life," said Alisman, who moved to Lawrence in 1984.
Alisman spent all Tuesday night trying to get in touch with his parents and other family members. He still has yet to hear back.
"You feel all kinds of emotions because you don't know what's going on and what you can do."
Fortune was not on Paul Etienne's side.
His father, Etiennor, 68, was supposed to return from Haiti yesterday after going on vacation. The older Etienne lives in New Jersey and spends some time in his native country during the winter.
"My stress level is so high. I don't know if he's alive or if he's coming back," said Paul Etienne of Lawrence. "I've been trying to be strong, but I feel terribly for my father."
Ready to help
Pam Nolin of Haverhill has already told the Red Cross she's ready, willing and able to head for Haiti and provide medical care to the victims.
The retired nurse spent almost four weeks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005. Then she went to Houston to care for people who had been evacuated from New Orleans.
Despite her vast experience in helping disaster victims, she said it's "unlikely" she'll get a call from the International Red Cross. The requirements for volunteering for the worldwide organization differ from the American Red Cross' expectations, she said.
For one thing, volunteers headed overseas must be up to date on all kinds of shots, she said. Nolin and anyone else who ends up going to Haiti can expect to work shifts of 10 to 12 hours, she said.
She also said seeing the pain will be tough to take, but the reward will be great.
"You're there as a supportive role. That overtakes the sadness," she said.
'The last thing we need'
Marie Stephania came to America when she was 7 and now lives in Lowell. Her grandmother and aunts remain in Haiti. She spent Tuesday night watching the horror unfold on her television.
"I just felt hurt because we have no machinery, fire department and people are digging up dead with bare hands," said Stephania, a member of the Haitian Church of God in Lawrence.
"I was very sad and helpless because I couldn't give back to them."
Yesterday, Stephania decided to go to work as director of staffing for a health care agency to clear her mind.
"I didn't want to stay home and watch the news all day, but as soon I got to work and people started asking me, I started crying," she said. "I tried to be strong, but I couldn't."
However, she says strength will come for the people in Haiti.
"We are a very resilient people," she said. "I know we'll get over this as well."
'Could have been me'
Winnedia Dallemand of Lawrence returned from Haiti two weeks ago after spending the Christmas holiday with her aunt, cousins and friends. She cries every time she sees the images of crumpled buildings, dust and rubble flash on television.
"All I can think of is if I was still there, something could have happened to me," said Dallemand, 24.
She moved to Lawrence in 2007 and is taking English as a Second Language classes at the Adult Learning Center, with hopes of becoming a nurse.
Hearing from home
Edna Chery, a Haitian immigrant who owns Needlynn's bridal and tuxedo shop at 7 Hampshire St. in Methuen, said her cousin's house near the capital collapsed, and that her cousin had a nursery school in the home.
"I know there were people in there," Chery said from the dress shop.
The earthquake hit when parents were at work so she knows there were children inside the nursery, but she doesn't know how many, she said.
Chery has only been able to ascertain spotty information because of communication problems in Haiti. She managed to reach her brother-in-law, Ney Belancourt, around 7 p.m. Tuesday and he painted a picture of jammed traffic, collapsed buildings and injured people.
"You can't talk to anybody, so what you see on the TV is what you get," she said.
Chery is collecting food and clothing at her store for the victims, and she plans to travel back home to help people there.
Staff writers Paul Tennant, J.J. Huggins, Jill Harmacinski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.