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.