Haiti's limitless poverty and hardship have long drawn aid groups and charities from across the world. Now the same people who tried to do good before the earthquake find themselves trapped in the rubble, out of touch with their loved ones and struggling to carry on their missions.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti was killed. Thirty six United Nations workers were killed; scores more are missing or trapped in their collapsed headquarters. Missionaries, students, doctors and others are missing or out of contact.
"This earthquake is really too much," said the Rev. Duken Augustin, a Roman Catholic priest said in an e-mail from his home in Cap Haitien, where he works for the U.S.-based Food For The Poor charity. "No (break). No chance. We will have to deal with new needs, new sufferings, new situation of hunger, new despair, new devastation."
Aid groups face a difficult balancing act: Trying to meet the unbelievable needs of the Haitian people while finding their own missing colleagues and assessing the damage to their own orphanages, clinics, shelters and kitchens.
HealingHaiti.org, a Christian aid group based in Minnesota, has only gotten trickles of information from Haiti, but this much has surfaced: One of their orphanages is damaged, the fate of another and its occupants unknown. The director of its Haiti outreach lost his home; he and his family have been sleeping in the street. An American staffer survived the quake but was trying to find his daughter. Their home for disabled children was destroyed, but there was no word on the occupants' fates.
'Hell on earth'
"It's unbelievable," said Jeff Gacek, HealingHaiti's director. "It's literally hell on earth."
Relatives of church group members from several New Jersey churches struggled to get in touch with loved ones who arrived in Port-au-Prince just hours before the quake. A couple from Wisconsin, that helped set up a dental clinic in Haiti's capital has been unable to reach the dentist who runs it. Members of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas wonder whether any of their 12 missionaries in Haiti have been injured.
"Our biggest priority is getting them out of there," said Kim Gifford, a church spokeswoman.
David Adams of the Christian relief agency Cross International was about 100 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck, and was trying to determine whether to ship some food from the orphanage he was in to the capital.
"We have two containers with dried food, but we have to be concerned about the kids here," Adams said. "We're in a village with over 600 children. We can just predict from past disasters that getting food in here from the outside world or even from Port-au-Prince is going to be very hard. So we're to willing to give up some of it, but we have to be careful we keep some of it for the kids."
For most of the charities, helping Haitian victims was still the priority even with paralyzing fear about what happened to their colleagues. The International Committee of the Red Cross said a third of the country's 9 million people may need emergency aid, a burden that would test any nation, let alone Haiti.
"When something like this happens and you're on the ground you kind of know that there's going to be help on the way," said Chuck Malkus of Neighbors 4 Neighbors, another group working in Haiti. "But instead of thinking about that your immediate concern is those that you're surrounded by everyday."
12 missing from Baltimore charity
"Having personal ties makes people even more focused on launching a successful response," said Andrea Kaufmann of the Christian charity World Relief in Baltimore, which has been unable to account for about 12 of its 40 local staffers in Haiti.
The Florida Baptist Convention has heard from only two of its 21 workers since the quake, spokeswoman Barbara Denman said. A four-person team plans to fly to Haiti this weekend to check on both the convention's workers and a 50-bed guest house in Port-au-Prince that could become a center for relief teams in coming weeks.
"We do not know if it is still there. We have seen some pictures of the street our guest house is on, and there does not look to be a great deal of damage. But we will not know until we get there," she said.