Haiti to get portable classrooms unused by Broward

From television interviews in Miami-Dade to a school visit in Broward, Haitian President René Préval raced through South Florida over the weekend seeking additional relief for his storm-ravaged nation.

Préval held private talks in Key Biscayne with Dominican President Leonel Fernández to discuss participation of that neighboring country's private sector in reconstruction projects. And he met Monday with the director of the Port of Miami to discuss how to transport several hundred unusually large items to Gonaives, the city hardest hit by four back-to-back storms last month.

The most promising gift so far from South Florida for Haiti: 600 portable classrooms from Broward to help alleviate a crunch created by damaged schools still serving as shelters for more than 165,000 homeless storm victims.

Storms Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike are blamed for more than 700 deaths. They destroyed tens of thousands of homes, wiped out more than 50,000 acres of agricultural fields and delayed the opening of schools by a month.

''This is a project that would have long-term impact in Haiti, especially for our youth and education sector,'' Préval said Monday in between a press conference at the Consulate General of Haiti in downtown Miami and a visit with a group of Broward County Haitian community leaders who have been working with the school district on the portable classrooms donation.

School officials said the portables would likely be dismantled and destroyed if they don't go to Haiti even though the temporary buildings are good for another 20 years.

''There is no need for us to utilize these portables,'' said Benjamin Williams, a member of the Broward School Board. ``It's going to take money to dismantle these portables.''

Préval is scheduled to return to Haiti on Tuesday. He was originally scheduled to go home on Sunday, but he canceled the flight and headed north to Everglades High in Miramar. Arriving at the campus, he sat inside a portable classroom and was immediately impressed.

Williams then explained plans to ask his fellow board members to donate the mobile classrooms.

On the drive back to Miami, Préval said he realized the structures could also help transform education in a country where many students learn in rundown, deteriorating classrooms.

''He's truly energized by this,'' said David Lawrence Jr., a child advocate and former publisher of The Miami Herald to whom Préval has reached out for assistance. ``He's deeply interested in seeing if there are other portables in the other school districts and asked me to see if I can make something larger come to pass.''

Lawrence said the portables are a great idea.

''I am delighted to help,'' he said. ``Haiti needs every bit of help it can get, and it should be the obligation of every fortunate person in Miami to help.''

Préval also met with former Gov. Jeb Bush, various community leaders and officials and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who organized a meeting at Miami International Airport where Préval, the Port of Miami director and the owner of a private shipping company discussed transportation.

''I believe there is no greater humanitarian effort that South Florida can engage itself in,'' Meek said. ``In many of the hardest-hit areas, children are sleeping under the stars because their homes have been destroyed. These portables would allow the government to start putting the education system back in place so the children can learn in decent conditions.''

Williams first mentioned the portable idea to board members three weeks ago. He also has been in contact with Walmart, he said.

''They want to give school supplies for this project,'' he said. ``They say they are ready to do this if the Broward school system is going to give them the portables.''

Along with discussing the possibility of acquiring additional portables from the state of Florida, Préval has been trying to create partnerships to raise the funds to transport and assemble the 20-foot by 30-foot structures.

The objective of the project, he said, is to use the portables as the cornerstone of a community center in each of Haiti's 142 counties, which would include classrooms, health clinics and sports facilities for youths.

Préval said that even as Haiti faces many rebuilding needs, his goal is to ``little by little return a sense of normalcy to people's everyday lives.''