Alabama ready to accept Haitian refugees

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who was credited with restoring order in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, is calling on the United States, and in particular the governors along the Gulf Coast, to offer refuge to the most vulnerable Haitians affected by the deadly Jan. 12 earthquake.

"It would be nice, very moral, if our governors would reach out and take the vulnerable population to a place that is safe," Honore said by telephone Wednesday. "It's a moral issue. We ought to do what we can to help people."

Honore, a Louisiana native who lives in Baton Rouge, said people on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast ought to be open to the idea of helping others struck by a natural disaster.

"We need to face up here in Louisiana and show our charity and human kindness to people who need help," he said.

Honore commanded Joint Task Force Katrina and became a hero in New Orleans after he landed in the flooded city and quickly kicked into action the military response to the catastrophic August 2005 storm.

Governors and their staff in Texas, Mississippi and Florida did not return calls seeking a response to Honore's comments.

Todd Stacy, the press secretary for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, said that Alabama has not been asked to shelter Haitians. But he added that "if that need arises, the state of Alabama stands ready to work with our federal partners to help in any way we can."

Kyle Plotkin, a spokesman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said Louisiana officials have been "in constant contact" with federal authorities and that the state stands "ready to assist the recovery efforts." He added that the federal government "has the lead on handling international citizens that may evacuate to the United States."

So far, the United States has not flung open its borders to Haitian refugees. The Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday that 29 Haitians with medical problems and 92 orphans had been allowed into the United States for humanitarian reasons.

Last week, the federal government approved temporary protected status for Haitians who were already in the U.S. when the earthquake struck, meaning they cannot be deported back to their struggling homeland. U.S. officials expect 100,000 to 200,000 applications from Haitians, including illegal immigrants, who want to stay under the 18-month reprieve.

Doctors and medical experts agreed with Honore about the need to do more for people still in Haiti, but said it was unlikely large numbers of Haitians would be airlifted to U.S. hospitals. They pointed out that American hospitals might find it hard to handle large numbers of Haitian victims.

Speaking by telephone from Port-au-Prince, Dr. William Walter O'Neill, dean of clinical affairs at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, said "the medical facilities (in Haiti) are overwhelmed. There is a desperate need for medical care." He said one surgeon at the university's field hospital in Port-au-Prince treated 60 patients on Wednesday.

He said he would like to see more patients evacuated out of Haiti and sent to the "U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Venezuela."

"You can't really conceive of the calamity down here," O'Neill said. "Security is a major concern."

Nancy Mock, co-director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University in New Orleans, said Honore was right "from a purely ethical, and probably from a practical standpoint."

"Right now, we're spending a lot of money to set up infrastructure there," Mock said. "Would it be cheaper to bring people here? Possibly."

She added that nations routinely open their borders to disaster victims but she saw little chance of that happening here.

"Here in Louisiana we have been the victims. We have been hosted and helped by others, and that should make us open to this idea," she said.

In Port-au-Prince, hundreds of Haitians, some with U.S. documents, have waited outside the U.S. Embassy in the hope of getting a flight out of the disaster zone, which has felt more than 45 significant aftershocks since the initial quake. American officials are determining who is eligible to be evacuated.

"We appreciate the urgency of the situation and need to process evacuees quickly," said Matthew Chandler, a spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said the United States should help "the people of Haiti rebuild their country" and that would be hard "if there is some mass exodus out of Haiti." He said the logistics of evacuating sick Haitians would be "very difficult."

Philippe R. Girard, a historian at McNeese University in Lake Charles, La., who has written extensively on Haiti, said politicians would see hazards in bringing large numbers of Haitians to the United States.

He cited Cuba in 1980. That year, former President Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave and more than 125,000 Cubans came to the United States, including prisoners who Castro had released. Some Cubans who ended up in Arkansas rioted and that played a part in the re-election defeat of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, who had welcomed Cubans to his state, Girard said.

"On the back of their mind is what will be the popular reaction to allowing too many Haitians into the U.S.," Girard said. "It depends a lot on numbers. If it's 100 Haitian orphans, it's difficult to say no. But if you're talking about thousands per state, I would think conservative governors like Bobby Jindal in Louisiana would start dragging their feet."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.