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At Uniondale High, Haitian disaster hits hard

Emillienne Georges, 16, a ninth grader at Uniondale

Emillienne Georges, 16, a ninth grader at Uniondale High School, is missing her mother, who is a doctor in Haiti. She's trying to learn if she and other relatives survived the Haiti earthquake. (Jan. 13, 2009) Credit: Dave Marcus

On any day, Uniondale High School is infused with the sounds and sights of Haiti - the hallway chatter in Creole, the references to summer vacations in Port-au-Prince, the T-shirts emblazoned with the white, blue and red flag with two cannons and a palm tree.

Wednesday, school began with a moment of silence - interrupted only by muffled cries for loved ones among the dead, the injured and the missing.

>>PHOTOS: Frantic rescue effort in Haiti | Deadliest recent earthquakes

The earthquake that flattened homes and stores and destroyed phone lines across Haiti brought a chill to the building 1,500 miles away. Florence Simmons, Uniondale's principal, noticed it in the students hugging each other wordlessly as they entered. Lexoune Marcellin, a guidance counselor who was born in Haiti, opened her door and found anxious students who hadn't slept all night.

Emillienne Georges, 16, who lives with her father in Uniondale, kept thinking about her mother, a pediatrician in Port-au-Prince. "I called and called and called, but no connection."

She sat transfixed by the news on TV until late at night, seeing images of familiar places that had collapsed entirely or partially: the presidential palace, hotels, stadiums. She tried to find information about the hospital where her mother sometimes works. From what she gathered, one wing was in ruins.

She named other relatives who haven't been accounted for: "My grandma, my grandpa, my auntie, my cousins."

Tenth-grader Javan Williams, 15, couldn't reach his father, who was deported from the United States 11 years ago. Javan lives with an uncle and aunt and hasn't spoken to his dad for several months. "I'm trying not to think about what could have happened," he said.

Uniondale High has 163 students of Haitian descent, plus a dozen staff members, Simmons said. She mobilized a crisis unit of counselors and social workers to talk to the Haitian students, and was pleased but not surprised that about 90 percent of them showed up for school. "We're not forcing them to go to class," she said, "but they want to."

She turned the TV on her wall to CNN and welcomed students who wanted to watch the news or call a toll-free number that reports the names of survivors.

When school opened, an assistant principal made a PA announcement telling everyone to respect the Haitians, who were going through a difficult time. The kids already knew that. The Key Club started collecting water bottles, and the Latino student association started a food drive.

Natalie Ledan, 17, told friends about an eerie thing that happened Tuesday night. She was on Facebook, exchanging e-mails with a family friend in Port-au-Prince who is deaf. Suddenly, he stopped answering. Her grandmother told her there'd been a quake.

Natalie kept thinking about the deaf man, as well as a 6-month-old cousin she hasn't met. "How are they going to feed a baby if there's no electricity, and no food for the mother?"

Diane Barton, an assistant principal, pulled out her cell phone during seventh period when a relative called. "Oh, no!" she said. The relative had information: another relative was missing.

In the guidance office, Marcellin urged students to channel their fears into productive work - gathering food and clothes for the quake's survivors. Yet all day, she, too, had an uneasy sense. She had not been able to get any word about her own father, a businessman and minister who lives in Haiti. "We don't know if he's alive or if he's - I hate to phrase it this way - dead."

>>PHOTOS: Frantic rescue effort in Haiti | Deadliest recent earthquakes

>> LIVE: Twitter coverage of the scene in Haiti, from aid agencies, and reaction worldwide

>> VIDEOS: Latest videos from Haiti and on LI

>> MORE: Read more about LIers grieving and LI's efforts to help | Latest news from Haiti | Haiti's road to chaos: 2006 Newsday series



* You can help immediately by texting "HAITI" to "90999" and a donation of $10 will be charged to your cell phone bill and given automatically to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts.

* Wyclef Jean, a rapper and hip-hop artist from Haiti, urged people to text "Yele" to 501501 to donate $5 toward earthquake relief. Yéle Haiti is a grassroots movement inspiring change in Haiti through programs in education, sports, the arts and environment, according to its Web site.

* The State Department Operations Center has set up the following number for Americans seeking information about family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747. The Red Cross has also set up a Web site to help family members find and contact relatives.

* You can also go online to organizations such as the Red Cross and MercyCorps to make a contribution to the disaster relief efforts.

Other Web sites accepting donations include:

-Haitian Health Foundation
-Hope for Haiti
-International Medical Corps
-Beyond Borders

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