Alert for Haitian exodus; Recalling a past migration

By Chuck Weber

WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX)-Several thousand Haitians have been seen lining the shores of Port-au-Prince, hoping to flee by boat to other parts of their country.

Fearing deaths at sea, or a refugee crisis in South Florida, U.S. Homeland Security and Defense Department officials say they will take a hard line to avert a mass exodus from the island. Still, Governor Charlie Crist has put our state's emergency managers on alert.

Vince Bonvento, head of Palm Beach County's Public Safety Division, said leaders are aware of the potential for an exodus.

Bonvento remembers how the county was directly impacted by a mass migration in 1980-- the Cuban Refugee Crisis, or Mariel boat lift. Bonvento was one of the county staffers involved in setting up a transition center for thousands of Cuban refugees at the South Florida Fairgrounds.

"That was quite an experience," recalls Bonvento. "Unbeknownst to us, or the state, or anybody, the National Guard had sent 350 refugees (to the armory near downtown West Palm Beach). They had only one toilet facility."

Literally overnight the county opened up the fairgrounds for the refugees. With lots of help from the community, the county ended up providing screening, shelter, food, and medical care, to several thousand refugees for about two weeks, until the military moved them elsewhere.

"If there was a mass exodus again," said Bonvento, "and if the fairgrounds were available, obviously we would use the fairgrounds again as another staging area." Other facilities could possibly be used as well, he said.

Bonvento said the state is giving daily briefings, and local agencies potentially impacted by a mass migration are being "kept in the loop" about the latest developments.