More than 500 Cubans were flown from here to Eglin Air Force Base in northwest Florida, as the federal government stepped in today to take over management of the refugee situation from state and local officials.
Refugees who do not have relatives in the United States will be processed and held at Eglin until they are resettled in the community. Those with family will continue to be bused to Miami, where they are interviewed by immigration officials and released to the care of relatives.
However, Florida officials said that because the Miami processing center and other temporary housing facilities there are overloaded, no buses would leave Key West today.
Fortunately for the logistical tie-up, the number of refugees arriving here dwindled today, probably due to a storm that passed through the Florida Straits Friday night.
Coast Guard officials responded to 26 distress calls as 50-knot winds and 10-foot waves battered Cuban shores.No lives were known to be lost, although Coast Guard vessels and aircraft found four sinking boats and one abandoned vessel.
The Cuban border guard reported in a message to the Coast Guard that six to 12 boats had left the port of Mairel before the storm. "Certain measures" were taken at Mariel, the Cubans said, apparently to prevent boats from leaving during the bad weather.
Some 2,000-3,000 American vessels, 90 percent 30 feet or smaller, are moored outside Mariel, the Coast Guard said.
The Eglin air lift began at 10:30 a.m. today in a chartered Air Florida 737 jetliner. The plane will shuttle five loads of refugees a day on the hour flight covering 500 miles.
Eglin served as the processing center for 15,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1975. The number of Cuban refugees may surpass that, however, because 60 percent of the new arrivals have relatives in the U.S., according to immigration estimates.