In Fla., Families Struggle To Get Aid To Haiti, Cuba

In South Florida, Haitian-Americans and Cuban-Americans are mobilizing to help their friends and relatives back home. Conditions in Haiti make it hard to get aid to those who need it. Cuban-Americans face an embargo and restrictions of travel.

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Hurricane Ike left a trail of destruction when it roared through the Caribbean earlier this week. Haiti and Cuba were hit hard. In South Florida, Cuban-Americans and Haitian-Americans have been mobilizing to get aid to the islands.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports, there are significant obstacles to reaching the people who need aid the most.

GREG ALLEN: The problem with getting relief to Cuba is that only a small number of groups have licenses from the U.S. to distribute aid there. As many as 200,000 homes were destroyed in Cuba by the combined forces of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

In Miami, the Cuban-American National Foundation this week received approval from the government to create a special relief fund. Head of the foundation Jorge Mas Santos says it will allow Cuban-Americans to send aid directly to family members on the island.

Mr. JORGE MAS SANTOS (Chairman, Cuban-American National Foundation): We will make sure that those that have family members in Cuba, this money will get directly there. We have an agreement with Western Union who's assured us that this will be delivered directly to the family members in Cuba within the next 24 hours.

ALLEN: That U.S.-licensed fund, though, is just a quarter-million dollars and Mas Santos says at least $10 million in immediate relief is needed. Because of that, he and others in the Cuban-American community had been pressuring the Bush administration to temporarily relax its restrictions on how much money Cuban-Americans can send to family on the island.

Mr. SANTOS: We think the lifting for 90 days of the restriction of sending their (unintelligible) should be lifted. I think, like that, you unleash the power of not only tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans, but millions of dollars that can get to the island directly without having to go through the regime or through the government.

ALLEN: That's a request that so far, the Bush administration has turned down. The administration has offered to send a humanitarian assessment team to Cuba as a first step to delivering more aid. But the Cuban government has been unwilling to let that happen. As dire as conditions are in Cuba, the situation in Haiti is even worse.

Mr. ANGEL ALOMA (Executive Director, Food for the Poor): We heard reports that there were - had been people sitting on the rooftops for 36 hours without any food or any water.

ALLEN: Angel Aloma is the head of the largest relief group providing aid in Haiti. Food for the Poor is based in South Florida where it has a cavernous 30,000 square foot warehouse now, almost empty…

Mr. ANGEL ALOMA: This here, last week, was completely full. These two racks were filled right up to the top. And they've all gone down to Haiti now.

ALLEN: Food, water, blankets, tents. Food for the Poor has already sent 30 container loads of relief supplies to Haiti. The problem is getting those supplies to the city of Gonaives and other areas that because of flooding and mudslides are now cut off from the rest of the country. Aloma says his group has used a helicopter and small fishing boats to reach those in need.

Mr. ALOMA: We use some of those boats to take the food from - that the helicopter had brought in and then go in by water and the boats. We started picking up people from the rooftops and who were, you know, in danger of drowning in the water. And finally, when the water receded, there was over a meter or mud that they had to be wading through.

ALLEN: In South Florida, the humanitarian crisis has mobilized the region's sizeable Haitian-American community. A special relief fund has been created and the community is collecting food and other supplies to send to the devastated areas. Haiti's consul general in Miami, Ralph Latortue says all aid is welcome but that the big problem is accessibility. Ike, he says, destroyed six major bridges, severing ties to the area around Gonaives.

Mr. RALPH LATORTUE (Haiti's Consul General for South Florida): President Preval sent a message to the international community asking for help and demanding, if possible, to have military bridges so they can reestablish communication with the rest of the country.

ALLEN: In Miami, leaders and activists in the Haitian-American community are using Ike's devastation to once again, raise a critical issue. They're asking the U.S. to give Haitians temporary protective status, a designation that would stop deportations until the nation recovers.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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