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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida officials don't expect mass exodus from Haiti



The intense focus of the U.S. Coast Guard on Haiti, the ability of aerial photography to monitor migration, and the focus on assisting earthquake victims within their own country will obviate a mass exodus of people from Haiti to Florida, David Halstead, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Tuesday in a briefing.

He said the state is reactivating its 2003 plan called "Operation Vigilant Sentry,'' a Coast Guard-focused plan to prevent a mass illegal migration from the Caribbean. If people start to leave Haiti, they will be retained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, he said. Guantanamo can accommodate as many as 10,000 people until they can be resettled back in their homeland.

"It's absolutely not happening,'' he said of the rumors of potential exodus from the devastated island. He said Florida officials talked to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and she told them that with everyone watching the Haiti coastline and the ability to conduct aerial surveillance of people building boats, there is no evidence of any activity.

Meanwhile, Halstead said there are about 45,000 American citizens still in Haiti, many of them with relatives or on missionary work and "not all of those 45,000 want to leave.''

Florida is working to assist people in other ways -- from providing teddy bears to children to cell phones and vaccinations for returning citizens, said Florida's Department of Children and Families secretary George Sheldon.

"These folks are coming out of the country tremendously traumatized,'' Sheldon said in a briefing today. He met a 28-year-old carrying a 2-month-old child who had lost his wife and child.

The federal government announced late Monday that orphans coming to the United States will not be eligible for state public assistance but will receive federal assistance. At least 54 orphans arrived in Sanford, one of two centers DCF is operating, and were united with their adoptive families in this country, he said.

"Our duty here is to help our neighbors,'' Gov. Charlie Crist said at the briefing. More than 4,500 citizens have gone through repatriation, more than 180 first responders have been vaccinated and prepare to travel to Haiti, and more than 400 Florida state workers have been involved in the response. Two search and rescue groups, including one from Miami, have rescued 20-plus people from the ravages of the earthquake, he said.

Halstead said the state expects to spend about $6.7 million on its humanitarian aid efforts in the next two weeks.

Even without signs of a mass exodus of Haitians to Florida, officials throughout South Florida already have been preparing for an influx.


[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 1:15pm]


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