Minnesotans with contacts in Haiti were trying to assess the damage on Wednesday, a day after a powerful earthquake shook the country's capital.
A professor in Duluth was anxiously waiting to hear from his parents, several Minnesota aid organizations were trying to get information about damage to clinics, orphanages and schools, and at least one group was already making plans to travel to Haiti to respond to the crisis.
Information was trickling back to Minnesota, but with power out and cell phone towers down, Minnesotans were having a hard time getting in touch with their relatives and partners in Haiti.
"We're just praying," said Jeff Gacek, executive director of Healing Haiti, a Minnesota-based group that has two orphanages, provides funds for two schools and runs a water truck in Cite Soleil, a slum next to the country's capital of Port-au-Prince.
Gacek has spoken with the group's staff member in Haiti, who said a child at the group's orphanage in Cite Soleil was slightly injured in the earthquake. Gacek was waiting to hear news from the other orphanage, as well as from the schools and a third orphanage that was under construction. He said the organization hoped to get the water truck up and running again soon.
"It's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere," Gacek said. "And now they have this natural disaster on top of it. It's just unbelievable. We're just scrambling to try to figure out what we can do to help."
Jean "Rudy" Perrault, who lives in Duluth after leaving Haiti nearly 30 years ago, still hadn't spoken with many of his family members and didn't know where his parents were. But Perrault said he hopes Minnesotans will do what they can to help a country that's had "too many disasters."
"We need a miracle soon," said Perrault, a music professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "The country needs to be rebuilt. Everyone needs to put their hands together."
Perrault heard about the quake Tuesday and hasn't slept since. "[I've] just been on the phone [with] at least 200 people that I know in Haiti or who have contacts in Haiti. No one knows anything," he said.
Perrault was able to speak with his sister who lives in the hills outside of Port-au-Prince.
"She says practically it's the city itself downtown -- it's basically they dropped a bomb and the city's leveled," he said.
Maria Roesler-Lundy in Minneapolis is also searching for information. She lived and taught in Haiti a couple of years ago and it's where she met her husband. He just went home for a visit and she doesn't know if he's OK.
"I talked to him at 1:30 yesterday before the earthquake, and he was in Port-au-Prince getting ready to drive to Jacmel and told me to call him in three hours," Roesler-Lundy said.
Lundy has not yet reached her husband. She thinks he was probably on his way out of Port-au-Prince when the quake hit.
"He might be OK because he wouldn't have been in building, but the mountain roads are rather treacherous so I really don't know," she said.
Like so many people with loved ones in Haiti, Lundy has no option but to wait by the telephone and scour the television and Internet for any information.
Many organizations in Minnesota and around the world had begun trying to raise money for relief efforts. The Twin Cities chapter of the American Red Cross encouraged Minnesotans to make financial donations.
"The best thing that can happen is that we can get supplies closest to where the event has occurred," chapter CEO Phil Hansen told MPR's Midmorning. "We can get supplies that are very specific to the needs that people have, and if possible, even buy supplies that are necessary, right on the island, which has the additional effect of helping re-stimulate the local economy."
The Twin Cities-based American Refugee Committee plans to have an initial team in the region by Thursday morning. The crisis team will be led by a staff member who lived and worked in Haiti.
"We're poised to be able to respond very quickly," said CFO Mike Zeitouny.
Zeitouny said the organization plans to help mobilize existing infrastructures in Haitian cities outside of the disaster area, but he emphasized that the situation could change rapidly.
"The reality is that reports from there are very scarce and all we know right now for sure is that medical services are the biggest demand," he said. "Besides that, no one is really providing any credible data on anything else."
Healing Haiti and three other Minnesota-based groups, Haiti Outreach, Healing Hands for Haiti and Feed My Starving Children, had separate trips to Haiti planned within the coming weeks. The groups were still trying to figure out if those trips were feasible. In Healing Haiti's case, Gacek said he was hoping to move the trip up to help.
Feed My Starving Children had received relatively good news from Haiti: The main warehouse that stores food for meals the group provides to schools and orphanages was unharmed. But Gwendolyn Cowle, the organization's marketing director, said the group's partners in Haiti might have a hard time transporting the food from the warehouse to those in need.
"The struggle is always how to move around in that country. Typically it's pretty tough anyway," Cowle said.
Healing Hands for Haiti, a group that runs a physical and occupational therapy clinic in Port-au-Prince, was waiting to hear whether the earthquake damaged the building.
Lisa Rothstein, the group's international manager based in the Twin Cities, said the organization was trying to determine if their clinic could be used for emergency response. If not, it was quickly becoming clear that there would be more demand for therapy for those injured in the earthquake.
"We'll be needed much further down the road once the dust is settled," she said. "[We're] hearing about the amount of people who will have amputations and injuries that need to be dealt with over the long term."
Organizers with World Wide Village, a St. Paul-based non-profit, are working to organize a local meeting on Friday to coordinate relief efforts with other Minnesota agencies.
The earthquake is putting many efforts to improve Haiti's infrastructure on hold. Dale Snyder, who heads Minnetonka-based Haiti Outreach, said those efforts will now have to give way to a massive push simply to stabilize the desperately poor nation.
"It's a huge setback. It's going to require billions of dollars that could have been put into developing the country and creating an infrastructure and now it's going to be diverted, necessarily, to just help people survive," Snyder said.
The earthquake is also putting political pressure on Haiti's government ahead of presidential elections that will be held next year, said Rep. Jim Oberstar, who taught Haitian military officers English 50 years ago and spoke at a school reunion in Haiti last fall.
"This is a pivotal moment," Oberstar said, adding that the U.S. government should support the Haitian government. "If government fails in this humanitarian crisis, the political turmoil will be unimaginable and will plunge the country into another decade or more of even worse distress."
(MPR's Madeleine Baran, Phil Picardi and Steven John contributed to this report.)