Florida prepares as thousands arrive from Haiti

Florida is bracing for an influx of Haitian evacuees, with thousands already arriving by plane, but state and federal officials say they don't expect a flood of illegal immigrants.

"It's absolutely not happening,'' Florida Division of Emergency Management Director David Halstead said Tuesday.

Still, security officials and other state organizations have been preparing in anticipation of refugee issues.

Hundreds of immigration detainees are being shifted from South Florida's main detention center to clear space for Haitians who reach the shores, say the Department of Homeland Security officials. And the Catholic Church in Miami is trying to pave the way to allow potentially thousands of orphans to move here permanently.

By late Tuesday, more than 4,800 people had flown into Florida and nearly all were U.S. citizens, officials said.

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

None of the Haiti evacuees have been flown to the Tampa Bay area, though local officials say they are prepared should any come.

Tampa International Airport has a designated hangar ready and a plan in place to assist evacuees in need, spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said. Tampa General Hospital workers have been told they'll get a two-hour notice of any injured or sick evacuees, said spokesman John Dunn.

So far, Homeland Security is routing all rescue flights to Miami, Homestead and Sanford airports.

"We welcome everyone who's arriving," state DCF spokesman Jeff Follick said. "Many of those arriving have not slept in days, may have lost loved ones or may not have eaten in days."

Red Cross volunteers and rescue workers have been on hand at the airports to provide cash, food, water and assistance in connecting people with families or transfer flights.

But so far, that help will not be extended to migrating Haitians.

U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security officials say they are protecting Florida's borders as they always have.

Aerial surveillance of the Haiti coastline has revealed no evidence of illegal refugees heading to Florida, state officials say they were told by Homeland Security.

Among those who might gain special permission to remain in this country are orphans who already were in the process of adoption or Haitians evacuated for special medical reasons.

Those who are already here illegally have been scrambling to ensure they can stay. According to the Associated Press, thousands in the United States are preparing to file applications for temporary protective status that will allow them to stay in the country and work for 18 months.

Hundreds were lined up outside a Catholic church in Miami's Little Haiti on Tuesday to talk to lawyers.

In Tampa, the local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office will hold a briefing for Haitian nationals today to discuss requirements and application procedures for those who may be eligible to extend their stay.

As for the thousands of Haitian-Americans fleeing to Florida, that number was expected to grow through the night. But Follick, of the state's Department of Children and families, thinks the state is prepared to handle such arrivals.

Sanford, Miami and Homestead airports were chosen to receive the flights because they are international port sites and are best able to accommodate the increased traffic.

Tampa International Airport's Geoghagan said officials there have not received word that any flights from Haiti would be coming, but the airport is prepared. If a flight does come, Tampa Fire Rescue paramedics and other relief workers will be tapped for assistance, and the special hangar will be used for triage.

"It's very similar to the evacuees coming out of Katrina," Geoghagan said. "Everybody gets ready, and then you just wait."

Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writer Mary Ellen Klas, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Florida prepares as thousands arrive from Haiti 01/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 10:48pm]

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