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Tampa Bay Haitians worry for island nation after assassination, earthquake and storm

Churches in Tampa Bay have done their best to send supplies home to Haiti.
People search for those who may be trapped under the earthquake rubble the morning after Tropical Storm Grace swept over Les Cayes, Haiti, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, three days after a 7.2 magnitude quake. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
People search for those who may be trapped under the earthquake rubble the morning after Tropical Storm Grace swept over Les Cayes, Haiti, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, three days after a 7.2 magnitude quake. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano) [ FERNANDO LLANO | AP ]
Published Aug. 17
Updated Aug. 17

When Haitian president Jovenel Moise was assassinated last month, bringing violent protests and gang violence to the city of Jacmel, Daniel Jean-Julien gathered the dozen children from the orphanage he runs there and fled to a farm in the mountains.

With school about to start and things slightly calmer, Jean-Julien and the children — ages 1 to 16 —had just returned to the city last week. Days later, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the island nation.

The death toll on Tuesday rose to more than 1,400 with another 6,000 injured.

Jean-Julien told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that his home was still standing and the children were not injured, but he couldn’t talk long. The rain from Tropical Storm Grace was getting heavier, his phone was dying and he had to prepare. On Tuesday, there were reports of flooding in the city.

Florida is home to more Haitian-born residents than any U.S. state, followed by New York. More than 9,000 live in Hillsborough County and 1,500 in Pinellas, according to 2014 U.S. Census data, though other estimates put the number higher. Local Haitians said they are worried about the country where unrest and tragedies seem to pile up.

St. Petersburg resident Julie Roberts, along with members of her church, has for nearly 10 years stayed in close contact with Jean-Julien, sending money and supplies to support the orphanage, though lately it has been more difficult.

Roberts sends items to Miami, where Jean-Julien’s aunt puts them on a ship bound for Port-au-Prince. By the time he travels to the capital city to pick them up — there is no other option for shipping — it can be a month later.

“Many times he has told me, no, don’t send anything, it will just be confiscated,” she said. Gangs proliferated across the country in recent months, Jean-Julien told her, and they steal shipments of food and supplies.

Fadia Richardson, a Haitian-born Lithia resident and retired Hillsborough County teacher, volunteers with the Haitian Association Foundation of Tampa Bay. She said she’d been busy Monday helping organize donations with the New Jerusalem Haitian Baptist Church in Tampa. That evening, the donations were on their way to West Palm Beach to catch a plane bound for Haiti.

Richardson said they’d focused on medical supplies only, believing those are less likely to be stolen.

“With the unrest,” she said, “it’s a tough time to have a disaster.”

Richardson had just been looking at photos of her cousin’s collapsed home in Duchiti. Her cousin was safe, visiting her children in Canada, but now had no home to return to.

Richardson normally goes to Haiti twice a year to pay property taxes on a home she owns there, but she hasn’t gone in more than a year.

“There was a lot of kidnapping going on, even before the president was killed. They’ll follow you from the airport, kidnap you, then ask your family in the States to send money,” she said. “No one I know was going, unless there was a funeral or an emergency.”

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New Jerusalem pastor Claudet Saintil said he and his congregation of around 250 were doing the best they could to help.

While Saintil’s family lives north of where the most damage happened, he said that when he thinks of Haiti, “all of these people are my family.”

“One of my members had a brother whose house caved in completely,” he said. Others are still trying to contact family, though he hasn’t heard of any of his members having had a family member die.

Saintil said the hardest hit area has a lot of smaller villages, so supplies were more scarce to begin with.

“When you look at Haiti, it seems like every day something happens,” Saintil said. “Terrible things, one after another. ... But we pray. I still have hope.”

Tampa resident Jamecia Arestil said her husband, Lenord Arestil, had traveled days before the earthquake to Aux Cayes, Haiti, where he owns a store selling speakers and musical instruments. He survived, but with roads blocked, it’s nearly impossible for him to get back to the U.S., she said. Their music store was demolished.

They briefly lost contact after her husband lost his phone, but someone found it and returned it to him, Jamecia Arestil said. It’s difficult to send money, because the businesses where he’d pick it up are damaged. He told her there’s a shortage of food and water.

“He’s starting to drink coconut water,” she said.

A partially collapsed building in Aux Cayes, Haiti on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. The building housed a store owned by Tampa resident Lenord Arestil that sold musical instruments and speakers.
A partially collapsed building in Aux Cayes, Haiti on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. The building housed a store owned by Tampa resident Lenord Arestil that sold musical instruments and speakers. [ Courtesy of Jamecia Arestil ]

Nicolas Victorin is the former mayor of Pignon, Haiti. After studying at Hillsborough Community College for several years, in 2016 he returned to Haiti, rejuvenated and optimistic about making a difference in politics. He had financial backing from donors in Tampa for several projects, including a charitable agricultural center called Seeds of Faith that trains farmers, with hopes of reducing the dependence on imports from the Dominican Republic.

But but he is no longer a mayor. He said that before his assassination, President Moise replaced him. And even before Moise died, many felt there was “no hope,” Victorin said, with rising fuel costs, food scarcity and a lack of direction from leaders.

He was in Cape Haitien when the earthquake struck, far from the worst danger, but said, “everyone here is scared for what comes next.

“Haiti is so limited when it comes to resources, when part of the country has a problem, the whole country is affected. All the attentions will go there, and other regions will be neglected.”

But mostly, Victorin was worried about aftershocks knocking down poorly-built homes.

Even though it was raining on Monday, and a tropical storm was approaching, he was sleeping outside along with all his neighbors.

“We don’t even know what to do,” he said. “Staying inside is scary; meanwhile we cannot stay outside.” He believes the people of Haiti are suffering because of government corruption and poor leadership.

“I want people to know Haiti is not cursed,” he said. “Our leaders never cared about building back stronger, even after the 2010 earthquake. You can’t expect different results doing the same thing.”

At Minou & Ben Multi Services, a Haitian market on Tampa’s Fletcher Avenue selling groceries, DVDs in Haitian Creole and offering wire transfers to Haiti, owner Minette St. Fleur said her customers have been discussing the earthquake. But it’s hard for her to talk about the country where she lived until age 24 without becoming emotional.

“People, when they talk about Haiti, they really don’t know what they’re talking about. All they hear is bad,” she said. “Haiti is a beautiful place. The food is delicious. If you ever go one time, you’ll want to go back.”

She said that even after building a business in Tampa and raising four children — all university graduates — in the U.S., she will one day return for good. But this year, for the first time, she didn’t make her annual two-week trip home.

“After what happened with the president,” she said, “I just didn’t feel comfortable.”