Goal is to get hundreds of Floridians home from Haiti


PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – A Florida Division of Emergency Management flight from Haiti landed early Sunday morning at Orlando International Airport with 21 Floridians rescued from the crisis. Hundreds more want to leave.

Kevin Guthrie, the executive director of the FDEM, said most of the arrivals live in South Florida. Haiti’s chaotic gang war prompted a fuel and food shortage.

“We do have to strategically and tactically move inside of Port-au-Prince to get people to safety. That is a very, very continuous operation with roadblocks, gunfire,” Guthrie said later adding rescues are by land, air, or sea.

The FDEM flight that brought the 21 people to Orlando flew back to Cap-Haïtien, a port city on the north coast of Haiti. Guthrie said there was an aircraft on standby in Turks and Caicos.

Gov. Ron DeSantis entrusted Guthrie with a repatriation mission that has run into many complications, while over 500 Floridians are trying to leave Haiti.

“We are trying to work with a government that doesn’t exist and then we are trying to work with international laws,” Guthrie said during This Week In South Florida.

Guthrie said FDEM has found allied countries and communicates daily with federal and Haitian officials to make the flights happen.

“We are getting daily permits, so we can’t get anything to land every day for a week, or every day for the next two weeks, we have to do this bureaucratic process every single day,” Guthrie said about the Haitian permits.

Guthrie said FDEM has run into bureaucratic issues in the Dominican Republic and has been adjusting to Haitian authorities’ requirements by filing paperwork early in the morning.

“Usually by about 3-4 p.m., we hear something back that says we are clear to fly, and then we try to rush around because this particular airport does not have runway lights so we have to be off the ground by sunset,” Guthrie said.

FDEM moved the flights from the airport in Sanford to Orlando because U.S. Customs and Border Protection works longer hours there. Guthrie said he was grateful for the U.S. State Department’s help to help coordinate the FDEM flights.

Timeline of crisis in Haiti

A resident walks past a National Police officer guarding the empty National Penitentiary after a small fire inside the jail in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Haiti, Thursday, March 14, 2024. This is the same prison that armed gangs stormed late March 2 and hundreds of inmates escaped. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph) (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Haitian gang war worsened after President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination on July 7, 2021.

Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry as the prime minister, but he had not been sworn in. Claude Joseph was the acting prime minister.

There was turmoil in the streets of Port-au-Prince when Joseph stepped down and Henry became the acting president.

A man transports a coffin using a cart in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, March 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph) (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Henry’s plea for help from the international community upset the Haitians who reject intervention.

Henry was in Kenya working toward an international law enforcement effort with the United Nations when a coalition of armed men took over the airport and a prison.

Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former Haitian police officer turned warlord, leads the G9 coalition that recently pressured Henry into agreeing to resign.

Police take cover during an anti-gang operation at the Portail neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Gunmen shot at the international airport and other targets in a wave of violence that forced businesses, government agencies and schools to close early. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph) (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

On a Haitian radio show, Chérizier, 47, said he supports Guy Philippe, a former high-ranking police officer, who was in a U.S. federal prison for conspiring to launder money derived from narcotrafficking.

Philippe, 56, also has the support of a new generation of gang leaders who followed Chérizier. Among them is Johnson “Izo” André, prolific on social media — especially on YouTube.

Members of the G9 and Family gang speak to each other while standing guard at their roadblock in the Delmas 6 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph) (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Haitian National Police identified André as the leader of the 5 Segond gang based in Port-au-Prince’s Village-de-Dieu wanted for murder, kidnapping for ransom, illegal possession of firearms, vehicle theft, and hijacking of goods.

The United Nations associated André and his gangs with rapes, burglaries, kidnappings, the trafficking of drugs and weapons, and the obstruction of humanitarian assistance.

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Torres contributed to this report from Miami.

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