Problems Emerge As Miami Residents Take Refuge In Shelters

Sep 9, 2017
Originally published on September 9, 2017 4:06 pm
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Hurricane Irma is churning toward the coast. The storm ripped through the Caribbean, leaving flattened landscapes in its wake and is now on the north side of Cuba. As Irma inches closer to South Florida, more than 5 million people have been told to flee the coast. Our colleague Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of Weekend Edition Sunday, is still there in Miami. Lulu, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: And how's the weather?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It is definitely gusty. Palm trees are flapping in the breeze. Their branches are bending. And the storm, though, is now tracking slightly west of us. Naples, Fort Myers, Tampa are particularly under threat. But officials are telling Miami not to be complacent. We are getting tornado warnings here in Miami. There have been power outages in South Florida - tens of thousands of people already. Flooding, storm surge is a huge concern. And, actually, the most fatalities happen post-storm. So people are taking this very seriously.

Yesterday, we saw people frantically trying to board up their businesses and homes. At one Home Depot, we saw a phalanx of police trying to keep people orderly. There has, though, also been big problems at shelters here in Miami-Dade County. We visited a shelter two days ago, and it was pretty full yesterday. It wasn't accepting any more people. And there, we met Jose Perez, who had been to several shelters, looking for a place to stay.

JOSE PEREZ: I'm worried about my gas, about my life, about my car. I come here, and it's already full. You know, what am I going to do now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can hear the frustration in his voice. And he's not alone. People were showing up at shelters that had no staff or that were full, standing in the heat with their belongings and their kids. And some of these people are coming in from the Florida Keys, which are facing a direct hit.

SIMON: What do officials there say about that, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been addressing this. He gave a press conference yesterday. And he said, we'll fix the problem. Opening shelters, he said, is not as easy as people think. He said that they'd run out of Red Cross volunteers, and they'll be using National Guardsmen instead. And more shelters would be a priority. And, indeed, they have opened more shelters - so more places to go. But there is a lack of medical professionals. The city did a call-out for nurses in particular to help with those with special needs.

SIMON: Miami, of course, is an enormous American melting pot. You've been getting around to different communities. What have you seen as they try to prepare?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to take you now to a particular place, Little Haiti, to get a sense of the concerns of of that community. It's a neighborhood wedged between two more affluent areas. And it's the heart of the Haitian diaspora here. This is a community, Scott, that's been displaced over the years by earthquakes and storms in Haiti. And now they're facing Irma in Miami with a lot on their minds.

At the New Florida Bakery, it's crowded in the small shop that sits at the main intersection of Little Haiti. People are losing their tempers. They're chattering in Creole. The staff rush to fill orders in advance of the storm. Juliane Thervil waits in line for Haitian bread. It's a hard roll with a chewy texture. He says many here at the bakery are recent immigrants, though Haitians have a long history in Miami.

JULIANE THERVIL: Everybody looking for food.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone's looking for food. There's a lot of - it's a big hurricane, yeah?

THERVIL: Yeah, big. (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are you - how much are you - how much bread are you buying?

THERVIL: I'm going to buy three bread, three pieces of bread.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're going to buy three pieces of bread.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Francesca Menes is an activist for the Haitian community. She grew up in Little Haiti, going to that very bakery.

FRANCESCA MENES: A lot of the Haitian restaurants are still open - so at least selling food and just trying to gather food as much as you can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's waiting out the storm in her apartment above a strip mall nearby. Her friends wanted to go somewhere safer. But...

MENES: I'm like, I'm not leaving my community because we don't know what's going to be - what the support that's going to be needed at the end of the day once it passes us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says many Haitians don't have the money to evacuate, and they have elderly relatives who may need help. This is a familiar dilemma, though, for many in the community. Natural disasters have informed so much of Haiti's migration. Hurricanes and earthquakes have battered the island, forcing people to flee to other countries, she says.

MENES: Just any little brush of wind will hurt Haiti. It doesn't even have to be a direct impact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In addition to this hurricane, hanging over many in the community is their fate in America. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, some Haitians were given temporary protected status - or TPS - in the United States. That means are allowed to stay here under a renewable permission. The Trump administration is threatening to end the program, saying the island has recovered enough to repatriate those in America back to Haiti.

MENES: With everything that's happening with the hurricane, we're hoping that they're going to look at the conditions, really, and actually deem that Haiti's extension for TPS needs to be granted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is, though, a more immediate concern about Irma's aftermath, Menes says, particular to Little Haiti itself, which is home to the largest Haitian community in America.

MENES: We're a very strategic area. We're only about 10 minutes from the beach, 10 minutes from the airport, 10 minutes from downtown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That has already made it attractive for developers. And storms often remake the cities they impact.

MENES: I'm hoping that there won't be too much destruction in the Little Haiti community so that it doesn't give developers another opportunity to buy plots of land so that they can start building high rises in Little Haiti.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why is that a concern to you?

MENES: Our people are going to get pushed out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Scott, that's the snapshot from one community here in South Florida as they deal with Hurricane Irma.

SIMON: Lulu Garcia-Navarro in Miami. And, of course, she'll have more tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, as Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida. Lulu, thanks so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.