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Florida Shouldering Heavy Load in Haiti Mission

Florida schools, hospitals and charity groups have been helping care for more Haitians than all other states after Haiti's devastating earthquake, and they worry about how the influx will affect them.

Public schools are unsure how they're going to pay for more than 1,000 Haitian students who have enrolled in the schools since the earthquake Jan. 12.

Hospitals neared the saturation point before Washington freed federal dollars to help with the deluge of patients. Charity groups serving as funnels for aid to the quake-battered nation are worried about donations drying up for local needs.

"At one point, Florida had over 550 patients, and North Carolina had taken four," Florida Division of Emergency Management Interim Director David Halstead said.

Florida was ideally situated to lead American relief efforts because of its proximity to Haiti, a large Haitian-American community living there and a long history of dealing with large-scale events, from hurricanes to mass immigration waves.

Halstead said state officials viewed Haiti as Florida's "68th county" and kept their emergency operation center open for 29 straight days to help.

Donation boxes popped up in schools, hospitals and fire stations around the state. The University of Miami set up a 240-bed field hospital at the Port-au-Prince airport. A South Florida Task Force made up of 80 search-and-rescue experts was on the ground within two days.

The demands have been constant, straining a state already facing a budget shortfall nearing $3 billion for the upcoming year.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 15 days after the earthquake asking HHS to enact the National Disaster Medical System to distribute patients to other states and assist with federal funding.

Patients have since been sent elsewhere, including Georgia and South Carolina. Bruce Rueben, president of the Florida Hospital Association, said "glitches" are expected after such a massive disaster, but things have largely gone smoothly.

James Notter, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, said the district has been able to accommodate more than 500 students who have enrolled since the earthquake. School officials are talking with the state's Congress members to identify funding to help ease the burden.

"As long as it maintains this trickle in, it appears that we're able to handle it," Notter said. "If I get a phone call and they tell me 1,000 kids are going to show up Monday . . . that's where we're going to get caught short financially."

Charities in Florida are bracing for possible drops in donations after the outpouring of support for Haiti relief efforts. The American Red Cross is changing its usual push for donations during Red Cross Month in March.

"We recognize that a lot of people have given already," spokesman Roger Lowe said.

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