Immigration

Thousands of kids live in tents in Homestead. Do the feds have a hurricane plan?

On Aug. 24, 1992, a monster storm howled through Homestead, buzz-sawing roofs, ripping out trees, smashing schools, and scattering Homestead Air Force Base fighter jets like an overturned toy box.

If a repeat of Hurricane Andrew happens this storm season, which officially begins Saturday, will Homestead be ready? Emergency planners certainly think so. What about the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, which critics have derided as a glorified tent city? That’s less clear.

The camp — housing somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 minors, some as young as 13 — is set in the second most vulnerable hurricane zone in coastal South Florida, an area that bore the full fury of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, leaving it in utter ruin.

“I asked them what their plan of evacuation was if a hurricane were to hit, and they told me they didn’t have one yet, that they were working on getting one ready,” Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Florida Democrat and frequent critic of the camp, told the Miami Herald.

She visited the detention center on Wednesday, and declared herself “very worried.”

“They are a government agency overseeing the safety of thousands of children in Florida and should have a plan ready before hurricane season starts.”

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Thousands of young people are being kept at a detention center in Homestead, Florida. The American Friends Service Committee has launched a campaign to shut down the detention center and instead connect children with family and sponsors. María Alejandra Cardona For the Miami Herald

Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the camp, told the Herald they did have a plan, but that it’s a secret.

When a Miami Herald reporter asked to be provided any hurricane preparation documents, including evacuation plans, an official said by email that such information isn’t “publicly available.” The email suggested that a reporter try filing a Freedom of Information Act request and waiting for a response, a process that can take months or even years.

“All shelters in our [unaccompanied minors] network are required to have an evacuation plan in place,” HHS said in the email. “Processes have been established to ensure operational effectiveness... These plans are continually re-evaluated and updated as needed.

“Additionally, grantees/contractors must develop annual staff trainings on emergency and disaster preparedness.”

The camp holds unaccompanied minors — children who crossed the border alone or were separated from family members or legal guardians who weren’t their biological parents.

Caliburn, the company that actually operates the shelter, said Friday it would not comment, deferring to HHS.

Although not a prison, the Homestead facility does have some similarities in that the occupants sleep barracks style, have regimented schedules and are not allowed to come and go as they please. Parts of the compound consist of concrete buildings while others consist of large, white air-conditioned tents.

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The Homestead Air Force Base tower after Hurricane Andrew struck in August 1992. Al Diaz adiaz@MiamiHerald.com

The facility straddles the old air base, now downgraded to an air reserve base, and an abandoned site that was used by the Job Corps, a vocational training program for young men and women ages 16 to 24,

The state of Florida has some history with hurricanes hitting prisons and other institutional facilities. It is not entirely reassuring. Last year, Hurricane Michael caused damage to prisons, which in theory would be more hardened targets than a tent city for kids.

Gulf Correctional sustained roof damage to several dorms and had its perimeter fence partially shredded. Michael also left the staff and residents of the state psychiatric hospital at Chattahoochee cut off for days. Helicopters were used to drop in pallets of supplies.

A year earlier, the Florida Department of Corrections was able to evacuate 4,000 inmates to more secure facilities in advance of Hurricane Irma’s arrival.

That’s more than the current population of the Homestead migrant center, but Mucarsel-Powell is not reassured.

“It’s not easy to mobilize that many kids,” she said. “The director of ORR [the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of HHS] told me they were thinking of taking them somewhere up north in Florida, but that their plan isn’t ready yet, and that they should have it ready anywhere between seven to 10 days.”

Generally hurricane preparation involves communication and coordination across a range of governmental agencies. That’s not what is happening in Homestead.

Frank Rollason, director of emergency management for Miami-Dade County, told the Herald that federal officials are “doing their own thing.”

“They are self contained. Our involvement with the Homestead shelter is next to nothing. They have not reached out to us, or Miami-Dade County Public Schools, about sheltering these kids come a hurricane,” Rollason said, confirming that there are no plans to house the minors in county hurricane shelters.

“We’re not building an atomic bomb, so our plans aren’t secret,” Rollason added. “Not sure why theirs are.”

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A soldier stands among the rubble of Homestead Air Force Base looking at an F-16 that was wrecked in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Miami Herald file photo

County officials said they did speak to the federal government during last year’s hurricane season. They said the government told them the children would either be flown or bused out of the area, that they “would not stay here.”

However, since that discussion took place, the population of the shelter has nearly tripled.

“These kids have been through enough,” Rollason said. “They shouldn’t have to be scared about what will happen if a hurricane comes.”

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.
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