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Katrina Moves Haitian Americans to Help on Gulf Coast

Volunteers from Florida and beyond join in the rebuilding effort. They say they're giving back.

November 26, 2005|Joel Hood | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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 American communities in Florida's Broward and Palm Beach counties traveled by bus to Mississippi's storm-ravaged coast to see if the reality matched the horrors of Hurricane Katrina they'd seen on television. 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 Gonaves, Haiti, was wracked by flooding in September 2004.

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 loved ones to come here.

But they say they can't imagine missing the chance to rebuild, not when the U.S. and other countries have done so much in Haiti's times of crisis.

"I saw the damage," said Kivens Sainte, 26, a Port-au-Prince native who works with the elderly in Delray Beach, Fla. "I saw what happened, and it struck a chord with me. It struck a chord for a lot of us. 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 with gusto -- three busloads of Haitian Americans representing the Community Development Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Boynton Beach, Fla. While savoring the opportunity to help, they're mindful that an all-black congregation may not have always been so warmly received in the area.

"We understand the history, but this is a new day," said Quetel Osterval, the foundation's director.

Historically, the foundation has mostly focused its efforts on education, computer retraining and low-income housing assistance for the estimated 65,000 Haitian Americans 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 nearly every Haitian church in the region. He also spoke about the effort on his local weekly Christian radio program, which is broadcast on the Internet.

Within weeks, he had 750 volunteers, some from as far away as New York, Boston and Chicago. The eight-day, 501-person trip to Biloxi and Long Beach is one of three rebuilding trips they plan for the Gulf Coast. In February, they will travel with a group of 160-plus volunteers and join forces with Habitat for Humanity in Lafayette, La. A third trip is planned to New Orleans in April. The $52,000 cost of this week's trip was covered by donations.

"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 help."

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