Officials monitor tragedy, prepare for mass exodus from Haiti

By Dianna Smith

As the world watches Haiti’s collapse just a few hundred miles from South Florida, are preparing for some of Haiti to end up right here, along Palm Beach County’s shores.
The Jan. 12 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands in the poor, desolate country prompted Palm Beach County Emergency Management Center Director Charles Tear to meet with city representatives recently; assuring them the EOC is ready should a mass exodus head our way. The county has a mass migration plan, updated just two years ago.
Details of the plan cannot be revealed, Tear said. However, “We maintain a state of readiness. We have reviewed our plans. Our job on a regular basis is to monitor everything.”
The coastal towns are often where Haitians come ashore, risking their lives on rickety boats and rough waters to journey to America for better lives. In May 2009, a boat capsized 15 miles off the coast of Boynton Beach, killing more than 10 people, mostly Haitian, including a pregnant woman and a 1-year-old girl.
Because Haitians were so desperate to leave their country even before the earthquake, many expect more Haitians to flee in the weeks to come. The earthquake toppled the capital city of Port-au-Prince and destroyed outlying villages, leaving more than 1 million people hungry and homeless.
Tear said he doesn’t expect a mass migration right now and the U.S. Coast Guard has also been told to stand down, said Ed Greenfield, public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Lake Worth. Right now, it would be difficult for earthquake victims to leave because the Coast Guard is patrolling Haitian waters.
Local law enforcement also regularly patrols the beaches. Manalapan Police Chief Clay Walker said of his department: “We’re on the lookout for anybody. Who knows where this will lead further down the road.” Walker said that typically rough sea conditions in winter months would make it difficult for Haitians to reach South Florida beaches safely.
Regardless of the rough seas, Delray Beach Mayor Woodie McDuffie said he expects to see an influx of Haitians to the area.
“I don’t think it’s if, I think it’s how many,” McDuffie said. “The country was in such dire straits before this that I can’t even imagine what it’s like now.”
Many Haitians have relatives here in Palm Beach County, where the Haitian population is said to be as many as 50,000, including a large Haitian community in Delray Beach.
McDuffie expects it to increase in the next several months, so much so that he’s even thinking about temporary housing. “I want to make sure we’ve got someplace to take care of them,” he said.
But if Haitians do come ashore, most likely won’t make it very far.
Undocumented Haitians living in the United States on or before Jan. 12 are now eligible for temporary protected status, which is granted to nations in the midst of an armed conflict or natural disaster. If a Haitian qualifies for TPS, he can stay in the country legally for 18 months.
But Haitians who arrive in the states after Jan. 12 will be taken into custody and sent right back to Haiti. Those in Haiti are already being warned not to leave.
Matt Chandler, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said his agency’s “focus remains on discouraging Haitians from attempting the journey overseas.”

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