Politics & Government

Congresswoman still can’t get hurricane plan for Homestead shelter for migrant kids

Hundreds march in Homestead for migrant children on Father’s Day

About 200 people gathered outside the Homestead shelter for migrant children on June 16, 2019, to demand that the Trump administration close the center and reunite the children with their families.
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About 200 people gathered outside the Homestead shelter for migrant children on June 16, 2019, to demand that the Trump administration close the center and reunite the children with their families.

Three weeks into hurricane season, a South Florida congresswoman still can’t get a look at the plan to keep unaccompanied migrant children safe if a storm hits the Homestead shelter holding between 2,000 and 3,000 children.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has expressed concern that the kids inside the shelter — some of whom live in tent-like structures — could be seriously harmed.

Upon the start of the season, the lawmaker demanded a detailed explanation of how kids would be protected, including how they would be evacuated if a major storm was bearing down on Homestead. Tuesday she got her answer — but not the one she wanted.

A one-page, six-bullet-point email told Mucarsel-Powell that the safety of the children is paramount and that the camp definitely has an evacuation plan. The actual plan however, wasn’t provided.

“Since the spring of 2018, the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] has closely coordinated with contractors on site and with federal partners to develop an evacuation plan for the Homestead Facility in the event of a Category 1 Hurricane or stronger. This plan includes elements for maintaining the accountability of all [children] in care, safe transportation and temporary housing for all children should an evacuation be necessary,” the email said. “ORR is working with on-site contractors and Federal partners to validate the plan, timelines and to ensure there is adequate space at the identified evacuation site.”

Mucarsel-Powell told the Miami Herald Wednesday that the government “is being irresponsible with the lives of thousands of children.”

“The administration refuses to answer to the American people and we’re insulted by their lack of accountability,” she said. “It’s not just their constitutional duty to respond to our inquiries, they ought to have a plan in place by now.”

The camp — housing children as young as 13 — is located 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 ruin.

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A service member stands amid the rubble of Homestead Air Force Base, including F-16 aircraft scattered by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. Miami Herald file photo

On May 27, the Florida congresswoman visited the detention center and asked for the hurricane plans but said she was told “they didn’t have one yet, that they were working on getting one ready” in seven to 10 days.

In late May, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the camp, assured the Herald there is a plan, but it isn’t “publicly available.”

The email suggested that a reporter file a Freedom of Information Act request, which can take months or years to fulfill.

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 operates the shelter, said it would not comment, deferring to HHS.

“They’re playing games,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

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Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) speaks during a round table discussion in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. Earlier in the day Mucarsel-Powell had visited the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Homestead with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The facility straddles the old Homestead Air Force 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 base was ravaged by Andrew in 1992.

Usually hurricane preparation involves communication and coordination across a range of governmental agencies., but that’s not what is happening in Homestead.

When Mucarsel-Powell asked to have Frank Rollason, director of emergency management for Miami-Dade County, along with Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp visit the site, the federal government refused them entry and wouldn’t explain why, she says.

“We are more concerned not just about the thousands of children there, but the caretakers and the security — everybody,” Rollason said. “They theoretically have plans, they tell us they have plans. Nobody has seen them. But my approach is, if their plans fail for whatever reason, and there are people still here, we want to help those people. So, we need to talk about a fall-back plan.”

ORR’s position: “To the greatest extent possible, ORR manages emergency response requirements, to avoid burdening Florida state or Miami-Dade local government’s emergency management authorities.”

Rollason said that by avoiding a conversation about evacuation protocols, the government could endanger others in the region.

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The air traffic control tower at Homestead Air Force Base remained intact after Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. Much of the rest of the base did not. Al Diaz adiaz@MiamiHerald.com

“We would hope that they would leave on what we call ‘blue sky days.’ What we are trying to avoid are calls during the 11th hour saying that ‘there are 1,500 people left and we need your help,” Rollason said. “Even if they don’t tell me the plan, how soon will they execute it? When are they looking to actually do something that helps all of us?”

He added: “I’m hoping that common sense will prevail and we’ll get together.”

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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