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26737: Hermantin(News)South Florida Haitian volunteers help Katrina-ravaged towns (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <email@example.com>
South Florida Haitian volunteers help Katrina-ravaged towns
By Joel Hood
November 24, 2005
Long Beach, Miss. · Homes stood here once.
Now, there are only trash-strewn lawns, piles of wood and concrete, and brick
steps to nowhere.
This is why they had come.
This week, 167 people from Haitian communities in Broward and Palm Beach
counties traveled by bus to Mississippi's storm-ravaged coast to see if reality
could match the horrors of Hurricane Katrina that they had seen on television.
For the past two days, their army of carpenters, electricians, nurses,
plumbers, doctors and engineers has tried to restore pieces of lost lives.
A home. A church. Whatever is needed.
"If I did not see this, I would not believe," said Fort Lauderdale resident
Elry Henry, 37, whose hometown of Gonaives, Haiti, was ravaged by flooding in
Henry and others say it's their turn to give back. Many of them left lucrative,
post-Hurricane Wilma construction jobs and gave up Thanksgiving time with
family and friends to come here.
They say they can't imagine missing the chance to rebuild, not when the United
States and other countries have done so much in Haiti's times of crisis.
"I saw the damage. I saw what happened, and it struck a chord with me. It
struck a chord for a lot of us," said Kivens Sainte, 26, a Port-au-Prince
native who works with the elderly in Delray Beach. "Looking around, I'm amazed
at what we're able to do. To be able to lend a hand to those who need it is a
beautiful thing. I couldn't be any happier."
So they came Monday with gusto -- three busloads of Haitians representing the
Community Development Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Boynton Beach.
While savoring the opportunity to help, they're mindful that an all-black
congregation might not always have been so warmly received in the area.
"We understand the history, but this is a new day," said Quetel Osterval, the
Historically, the foundation mostly focused its efforts on education, computer
retraining and low-income housing assistance for the estimated 65,000 Haitians
in Palm Beach and Broward counties. That changed with Katrina, Osterval said.
When Osterval first imagined a Katrina relief effort, he began a search for
"professional hard workers" that took him to almost every Haitian church in the
region. He also spoke about the effort on his local weekly Christian radio
program, which runs on the Internet.
Within weeks, he had 750 potential volunteers, some from as far away as New
York, Boston and Chicago. The eight-day, 501-person trip to Biloxi and Long
Beach, Miss., is one of three rebuilding trips they plan for the Gulf Coast. In
February, they will travel with a second group of 160-plus volunteers and join
forces with Habitat for Humanity in Lafayette, La. A third trip is planned for
New Orleans in April. This week's trip, which cost $52,000, was funded by
"It's a blessing to help, to have something to offer," said Osterval, who runs
the foundation from his cybercafe, Utel in Boynton Beach. "This is about people
helping people. It doesn't matter who you are. When you need help, you need
The mission began before dawn Monday at Boynton Beach City Hall. By 5 a.m.,
more than 100 people were in line to board the buses with backpacks, ice
chests, cases of water, duffle bags and an aluminum coffee maker.
It took more than 14 hours to make the 730-mile trip from Boynton Beach to
Biloxi, Mississippi's third-largest city and home to 55,000 people. Biloxi lost
almost 20 percent of its homes and buildings in Katrina. The storm's passed 47
miles to the west over the tiny towns of Bay St. Louis and Waveland.
Three months later, power has returned to much of Biloxi and the neighboring
town of Long Beach, 18 miles west on Highway 90. But the region is still "a war
zone," said Jim Sullenger, a volunteer from Virginia who has helped organize
Hotels and storefronts along the waterfront are gutted. Pancaked roofs lay
beneath twisted scraps of metal.
These are scenes all too familiar to South Floridians, but never on such a
"It was a monster," said Elourde Pierre-Turenne, a registered nurse from West
Palm Beach. "You don't know how anyone can survive this."
Pierre-Turenne's decision to come to Mississippi with her husband, Astrel, was
particularly difficult because she gave birth to her daughter, Ashley, only
three months ago. Ashley is home with her grandmother, a separation that pains
the young family. But there is greater good to be done here, Pierre-Turenne
"In the beginning, we donated money, we gave what we had," she said. "But when
we saw the damage, I saw myself in their shoes. I had to come."
In one working-class section of Long Beach, some blocks were left with one home
standing, but most have none.
"We're in a community where many lives were lost," Sullenger told the 60
Haitian volunteers who arrived Tuesday to rebuild a recreation center. "The
body of a baby was found on the beach just yesterday. This is sacred ground."
Added LaRue Stephens, pastor of a church that was demolished: "The beauty of a
group like this is that they walk alongside us. Having them here among us, it's
not about money, it's about their presence."
On Wednesday, almost 100 Haitians traveled to a mostly Vietnamese community in
eastern Biloxi. They started the morning by tearing apart and rebuilding a
storage room that will be used to house building material and appliances for
the neighborhood's revival.
As a dozen workers ripped drywall from the storage room, 12 others cleared tree
limbs and insulation from the site. One man diagrammed a framing plan for the
room on a paper towel.
While most of the Haitians wish the rebuilding moved faster, they're learning
to be patient and work within the system.
"I do not have my tools," Ernest Lormilus said after a frustrating afternoon
fixing PVC water pipes. "You give me my tools, and I can do this job in one
Although most know at least some English, around each other the Haitians speak
Creole, which isolates them inside the Gulfport naval base they share with
about 500 other volunteers from around the country.
But they don't mind. Each day begins at 5 a.m. as they dress in the dim glow of
small fluorescent lamps. Each night, they return to sing and joke and laugh
until the lights are turned out at 10 p.m. Sometimes the laughs linger a little
"We have such a love for this country. We're honored to be a part of this,"
Osterval said. "We've all been through difficult times. We all know what it's
like to need someone else."
Joel Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6611.
Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel