By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 20, 2010

Much like the emotionally paralyzed victims wandering the aftermath in Port-au-Prince, many here appear confused and stunned in their seats. More than a few don't bother removing their coats, hats, gloves, or scarves, even though six-foot furnaces are shooting heat across the aisles. Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) workers pass out tissues. Some desperately want death-toll updates; others plan to offer volunteer assistance; a few express concerns aloud when the floor opens up.

Even some invited speakers remain in shock. Haitian Consul General Marie Andrine still hasn't reached loved ones, and she struggles to offer a few words. Like her, many other mourners are just beginning to contemplate the shaken reality. But for the worrisome mass, a spirited St. Fleur and Dorcena Forry answer as many questions as they can and hold every hand tightly. "For so long, we have turned our eyes and closed our ears [to Haiti]," says Dorcena Forry. "But from this tragedy, there will be a new focus. Every effort we make here will save lives in Haiti."

The first hour inside Boston's makeshift Haiti crisis center, located behind the Bayside Expo Center, lacks the pandemonium that television newshounds expected. "We're still waiting for the rush," one reporter tells her producer on the phone. But soon after the morning crews file out around 10:30, volunteers begin showing up. First there's a Haitian-American couple, then two men, then three women, followed by a grief counselor and translator from the health commission.

It's logical for Boston to centralize relief operations here, at SEIU Local 1199 headquarters. Haitian-Americans comprise one-tenth (or roughly 3500 workers) of the health-care-employee union's membership, and, though this situation is extraordinary, 1199's activist organizers are fit to spearhead a focused local grassroots engagement. Here the union provides a vital resource: free and open communication lines — to Haiti or elsewhere — for anyone who needs them. Philanthropists with time and cash to give are directed instead to Partners in Health on Comm Ave (see "Boston Organization Fighting Good Fight in Haiti," page 6); this center is for people in distress.

In the room with computer terminals and land lines, there's no socializing whatsoever. Some Haitian-Americans brought bagged lunches for the long haul; they'll be here for hours trying to reach the same friends and family members. Representative Dorcena Forry sits alone and scribbles notes while paying close attention to the news. Like everyone else who is awaiting information — whether good or bad — she stops to check her cell at least once a minute.

Over the next four days, more than 150 visitors attempt to contact Haiti from the SEIU offices. With help from volunteers, pictures are downloaded from and pored over for familiar faces. In addition to the crisis center being a bona fide spiritual support structure, there are also tangible victories. After nearly three days, one man finally reaches his daughters, wife, and cousins. "His smile is etched into my mind," beams lead organizer George-Marie Jasmin.

But not all the incoming news rings happily. Soon after that discovery, one woman on a third visit with her daughter hears the worst. Though she was at first told that her sister survived, it turns out that several members of her family — including her sister — had died in the carnage. Along with two mental-health workers, she retreats to a private room to mourn. Still, she requests that there be a telephone available. There might still be some hope left on the other end.

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