Information Sought and Shared After Powerful Earthquake Hits Haitian Capital

The images trickling into the studios of Haitipal, a Haitian television station streaming a continuous online discussion following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the capital of the island nation, included the partially collapsed presidential palace, bloodied bodies strewn on the ground and dust-caked victims helping one another. But it was too early to estimate the extent of the widespread damage or the number of deaths.

Creole-speaking callers who joined the live discussion phoned in to give as well as receive information, while a live electronic chat with hundreds of people logged in simultaneously continued on an adjacent screen. None of the information could be immediately verified, the hosts told the audience, in an attempt to explain the exercise in citizen-journalism taking place and the unusual circumstance of needing the public’s help to gather information.

One woman calling from the U.S. said she was on the phone with her children, giving them the reference number for a wire transfer of money she had just sent when she heard a loud noise and was disconnected. She hadn’t heard from them since, she told the show’s three hosts, who huddled in front of a computer as the calls came. Local callers spoke about a collapsed school with students still inside and damage at the airport. One woman had not heard from her brother who worked as security guard at the palace.

No morsel of information seemed too small given the unreliable phone service and the trouble — if not impossibility — of reaching loved ones. When one man called to ask whether a particular area had been struck since he had been unable to reach his daughter, one host responded by telling him about a church in the same neighborhood that was leveled — information gleaned moments earlier from another caller.

In his own quest to separate fact from fiction, a rapper who goes by the name Haitian Fresh, and works with the record label started by Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean, called the station from the U.S. to inquire about a fellow entertainer named Jimmy O. Rumors were circulating that the artist had died in the quake.

As Haitian Fresh spoke to the station in Haiti, Jean appeared on CNN in an interview with Anderson Cooper to ask viewers’ help verifying information about Jimmy O’s whereabouts. Jean then made a plea to members of the Haitian Diaspora, especially those living in the United States, to send donations any way possible, including through his grassroots foundation, Yele Haiti. He also urged Haitian-Americans to call their elected officials to ask for help on behalf of the devastated Caribbean nation.

Several governments have promised to send help including the United States, France and Canada. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who visited Haiti in September, expressed France’s “solidarity” with the Haitian people, saying in a statement that France would “mobilize and dispatch without delay urgent aid to Port-au-Prince.”

A statement released by the president’s office said Nicolas Sarkozy reacted to news of the disaster with “profound emotion.” The president offered his support to the Haitian authorities and people as well as to the staff of the United Nations, many of whom were personally affected by the tragedy and remain missing.

Alain Joyandet, France’s development minister, told Europe 1 radio early Wednesday that the government was sending two aircraft carrying rescue workers as well as gendarmes to help with search and rescue operations. Joyandet said he was concerned also for the safety of the roughly 1400 French citizens living in Haiti, most of them in the capital.

“It would be a miracle if there were no French victims,” he said.