Panicked immigrants jammed the call-in lines at the French-language Haitian radio station CPAM, asking in trembling voices what the anchors knew about the quake's impact on various regions or, even more heart-wrenching, whether anyone listening might know of the whereabouts of specific people.
"If anyone can say what happened to my mother and father, please call in," one crying man pleaded. "Nobody can get through."
Montreal is home to more than 125,000 Haitians, the third largest population of expatriates behind New York and Miami and the source of more than $1 billion sent back to relatives on the impoverished Caribbean island nation. The community is so significant that TV networks here broke into regular programming to air press briefings at which top Canadian government officials announced plans to send aid relief and security forces to Haiti.
With phone service all but nonexistent in the temblor-hit regions of Haiti, even those who are accustomed to being in the know felt lost. Robert Ismael, a CPAM on-air personality, stood outside the broadcast booth gripping his constantly buzzing cell phone, frustrated that the calls coming in were all from Canadian friends and relatives hoping he might have heard something.
"People keep calling me because I work here, saying 'Do you have information?' " said an exasperated Ismael, 45, trying to learn the fates of four brothers, a sister and several cousins. "I know nothing."
Moments later, though, he learned something upsetting: A relative in Miami heard from someone in Haiti that the home of one of Ismael's cousins had collapsed. "I don't know whether it's true or not, but if it is, oh my god."
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A few blocks away from CPAM in the St. Michel region of Montreal, where many Haitians reside, the popular Creole lunch spot Chez Milie was particularly crowded with expats glued to the news on the TV. One image that prompted groans and winces when it appeared on the screen was that of the badly damaged presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, seen as a harbinger of the disaster's magnitude.
"It isn't just that the presidential palace is a symbol that the government has literally collapsed, but if the palace can be destroyed and it's the ultimate, best structure there, what does that mean for the rest of the country?" asked Jean Claude Latortue, 33, whose family owns the restaurant as well as a nearby clothing shop.
Latortue was particularly worried about his grandparents, who reside "pretty much right at the epicenter."
"I'm afraid they might be, you know, we don't know. It's a scary thought, but realistically you have to think about it," he said with a cracking voice. "It's highly likely" that they have perished.
While this week's earthquake is a far bigger catastrophe than any other in recent memory, Haitians in Montreal are accustomed to monitoring their home country for drama. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 left more than 3,000 people dead and a two-month span in 2008 brought multiple hurricanes and a tropical storm. All that comes on top of constant political turmoil.
"The immigrant experience of living here so far away from your people is that we have to sleep with one eye open and one eye closed because we're always worried that something might happen to the people we're close with," CPAM General Manager Jean Ernest Pierre said.
Or, as Latortue put it, the earthquake is "like you're taking a sick baby to the hospital and you get hit by a car. It's a tremendous blow."
Pierre said he participated in two meetings Wednesday morning with Haitian government officials as well as leaders of the local Haitian community to figure out how to respond and where to channel their volunteer and financial donation efforts. One solution being floated is for Canada and the United States to provide temporary immigration visas to Haitians with family who live in those countries, he said.
A large number of Haitians work as taxi drivers here, including 37-year-old Robens Sorel, who kept the radio on CPAM as he picked up fares.
"I hope you don't mind, I would like to keep the radio on this station," Sorel said apologetically as a rider piled into his cab. "My country is in ruins and I haven't heard from my mother today."