rene_preval_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

DAVIE – Shortly before 5 p.m., Serge Royal was aroused from his sleep when his house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, started to shake. Within seconds, the entire structure collapsed alongside the insurmountable rubble caused by a powerful 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the poorest and least developed nation in the Western Hemisphere.

“A lot of people were trapped under buildings. Those alive were hurt and bloody and covered in dust. So much screaming and cries for help. Those whose house was still there didn’t go inside; they were afraid it would fall. We sat together on the streets, next to piles of covered bodies, with no food and water,” Royal recounted at a luncheon the Minority Development and Empowerment Inc. (MDEI) hosted on Oct. 29 at the Signature Grand Ballroom. Francois Leconte is the group’s president/CEO.

About 200 people attended the local non-profit’s annual Luncheon and Spirit of the Caribbean Awards ceremony on the theme, “Celebrating Our Local Heroes Who Responded to the Haiti Earthquake.” The event paid tribute to local agencies and organizations now deemed heroes.

With Broward County being home to the second largest Haitian immigrant community in the United States, it was inevitable that the effects of the disaster would be felt locally. Recognizing that the most effective way to provide relief was to combine efforts, several corporate, non-profit and faith-based organizations, including the Children’s Services Council of Broward County (CSC), united to create the Broward Haiti Relief Task Force.

“Seeing them come together and work together on this issue was a huge accomplishment,” said Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, president and chief executive officer of CSC.
“But it was a testament to how important bringing relief to the Haitian people was to this community.”

Royal, like some two million other Haitians, slept under tents for four months before he and his two children were reunited with his pregnant wife Marie in South Florida.

The MDEI and the Broward Haiti Relief Task Force have pushed their commitment by assisting displaced Haitians with social services such as rent and food and ensured they receive top-quality medical care, including immunization and other physicals the children needed to attend school.

Since 1996, MDEI has collaborated with several agencies to provide the health, social, economic, educational and personal services needed for the growing Haitian and Caribbean population in South Florida. It accepts donations to assist in its mission.

Recipients of the Spirit of the Caribbean Awards — Broward County Health Department, Broward Health, Urban Search and Rescue Task Force II, Memorial Healthcare System, Holy Cross Hospital and Project Medishare — all brought hope and immediate emergency aid to the survivors of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and rendered the country helpless on Jan. 12.

“There is a significant amount of Haitian immigrants in Broward County but no one said the Haitian community had to take care of this issue by themselves. We all stood up together, we all worked together and we all were able to assist in coordinating aid that went directly to Haiti. In my eyes and in my heart, you are all heroes,” said Francois Leconte, president/CEO of MDEI.

The acts of heroism were initiated with Project Medishare, a group of medical personnel spearheaded by the University of Miami.  For the past 15 years, Medishare has been quietly caring for Haiti’s sick but most of its facilities collapsed during the earthquake.

Chaos combined with the smell of death greeted the first responders as they arrived in Port-au-Prince by a private plane, with no guidance from Haiti’s downed air-traffic control system, bringing donated medical equipment, medicine and food and water. At the request of Haiti’s President Rene Preval and the Ministry of Health, the team set up emergency tents on the airport’s fields, where they worked frantically to save the lives of the many who were critically injured.

“The first week was crisis management,” said Dr. Marie-Denise Gervais, director of Predoctoral Education at the University of Miami Health System. “A lot of amputees, surgical cases, etc., on top of their other general medical issues, like hypertension, that were not being taken care of. I can’t begin to give you a number for the many people we transported to Miami Jackson Hospital.”

Already ravaged by recent hurricanes, combined with its economical and political problems, Haiti sits on a large fault that has caused catastrophic earthquakes before, though the latest is considered the most powerful to hit the region. The focus continues to shine on the numerous disasters to overtake the nation, such as a recent cholera outbreak. Yet, in the midst of all the desolation, such heroism and survival still manage to arise.

“Project Medishare continues to be a presence in Haiti and currently has volunteers helping to combat the cholera outbreaks that are threatening the survivors,” said Gervais. “We recently moved the tents from the airport and have merged with Hospital Bernard Mevs, so the work is still going on.”

Tracy-Ann Taylor may be reached at

Khary Bruyning/for South Florida Times. Service recognition: Dr. Marie-Denise Gervais, right, holds plaque presented by Francois Leconte, president/CEO Minority Development and Empowerment Inc.