More than a month after Hurricane Irma struck much of the breadth and length of the State of Florida, farmworker communities continue to suffer from the devastation wrought by the storm. Many of the state's farmworkers lost a week's work as the storm approached and the agricultural industry, as the rest of the state, braced for the physical impact of the hurricane. In the aftermath of the storm, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and US Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) surveyed the impact of the hurricane on the agricultural industry. Ryan Gillespie of the Orlando Sentinel reported Putnam declared the most impacted sectors of the industry were citrus, nurseries, sugarcane, and vegetables, taking the brunt of the storm, reported. It is estimated that damages to the agricultural industry in the state topped $2.5 billion, according to The Ledger.
The social impact to marginalized communities, especially rural, low-income communities, is often left out of the conversation in news coverage of the storm's impact. Damage to homes often leaves families displaced, unable to return to their homes, having to rely on a network of friends, relatives, and church members, who may be able to put them up for a few days at a time. Sometimes affected families have to turn to shelters, or leave the area. When the damage is widespread, the network on which a community relies can disintegrate and those with no safety net can fall through with no one to catch them. Children often may have to miss school, parents often have to miss work to stay with the children. Living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save because of the low wages prevalent in the industry leaves many farmworking families with few resources to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps as the myth goes, not for a lack of trying, mind you. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median income for agricultural workers at $22,540 a year in 2016, of which laborers, crop pickers, nursery, and greenhouse workers only make $22,000. That is $15,000 less a year than the average national income median of $37,040. And yet, immigrant farmworkers are up to 43 percent less likely to use SNAP benefits than households headed by non-Hispanic white citizens with the same needs, a study by the University of California at Davis revealed.
Following a disaster we find that a return to normalcy means a new normal is in place. Working in the agricultural industry, the conditions that make the new normal are magnified. Not only have farmworkers lost wages over the days the industry was unable to operate as the storm assaulted and pounded the state. With the scope of the damage the industry took, this also means there will be no additional work for many of these workers. If the situation was dire before the storm hit, the aftermath has made a bad situation worse. And the plight of the farmworkers often goes unreported. Georgina Gustin of Inside Climate News recently wrote on the impact of the hurricane on farmworkers, noting the lack of coverage on the migrant workforce that included individuals with and without authorization of this $8 billion-industry.
The Farmworker Association of Florida is working with individuals and organizations throughout the state to help alleviate the pinch families are feeling due to this loss of income and damage to the social network on which they rely in times of need. One of the areas most affected by the havoc Hurricane Irma brought is Immokalee. Located in Collier County in southwest Florida, some 30 miles southeast of Fort Myers, this small quiet community with blue lamp posts, yellow buildings, and loose poultry, is home to about 24,000 souls. The sandy soil blowing through the streets makes this town feels like one in the U.S. Southwest rather than the Florida southwest. The day starts for many before 4 am, by which time they have to be ready to go on the buses that will take them to the fields sometimes up to 3 hours away.
The FWAF opened an office in this community after the 1995 floods devastated the coastal town of Bonita Springs in which many farmworking families lived. Putting an office in place at Immokalee allowed the organization to better serve the communities in Bonita Springs, Immokalee, La Belle, and Belle Glade. Maria Carmona, area coordinator for the FWAF in Immokalee, says work has been very slow for farmworkers returning to work. "Some days they work. Other they don't. Sometimes they only work half a day," relates Maria on a windy fall afternoon.
The silver lining may well be that, disasters, for all the destruction they bring upon communities, also have the power to often bring them together. Since Hurricane Irma tore through the state in early September, Immokalee neighbors have worked together to bring their community back up. Maria has been working with individual members of the community who want to pitch in and help their neighbors. An active member of the community, she is often contacted by people in need, or even friends of those in need. These needs can range from clothes, general cleaning and hygiene items such soap, toilet paper, and diapers, to blankets. Those members of the community in a position to help often drive these items to their neighbors themselves.
There have also been events to distribute some of the items donated to the different organizations working in the area. These have included some of the items Maria describes as well as items brought by the Red Cross and non-perishable food items like powdered and UHT tetra-pakked milk, canned fruits and vegetables, and condiments, as well as clothes and shoes. Nothing brings people together, however, like a hot meal and the chance to sit down in some company of friends or strangers who have been through the same experience. For humans, eating does not just fulfill a physiological need, but a social one as well. While cooking and eating humans have shared knowledge, experiences, information, and planned for the future for millennia. It is not surprising how comforting this experience can be across humanity after a traumatic event, to sit down with neighbors, to some of whom you may have never spoken and retell how each fared in the storm, all the while the comfort of nourishment soothes body and soul.
Last October 28, the FWAF and the Amigos en Cristo Center in Immokalee partnered to help in this community building and healing task, holding a community kitchen at the Amigos Center on S. 2nd Street, where members of the community got the chance to enjoy some warm food and a chance to talk to one another. A simple meal that included hot dogs, pretzels, and water was much more for the crowd gathered at the event. It was a chance to hear strategies for coping emotionally and logistically with the aftermath of the storm. It was a community's opportunity to rediscover how tightly bound it is. And it was also a chance to let kids be kids. A room at the event was designated for children to color, draw, and participate in craft activities. Hispanic and Kréyol children expressed themselves in blank sheet of paper where they let their creativity flourish.
At another event, Cristina shared her story with us. She lost her home during the hurricane. A neighbor shared her place with her and her family a place while they found another place. Unfortunately for Cristina, FEMA did not give her aid. Having lost her home and not being able to receive federal aid despite her children being US citizens has brought emotional stress to her and her family. However, she says people have been generous. She has received clothes, food, and other aid from the American Red Cross. She and her family have also found a place to live. In the meantime, she waits for an appeal to FEMA to be resolved and is hopeful things will work out.
Although the damage wrought on the community was widespread, Immokalee has also been fortunate in the outpour of support it has received from other communities in southwest Florida, the rest of the state, and from other parts of the country. The most difficult part for the farmworking members of this community will be regaining their economic footing. While children draw in the craft room and adults share stories around the table while munching on hot dogs, or a bowl of red rice and chicken, this and other affected communities throughout the state show their resilience
As Immokalee and other communities continue to recover from Hurricane Irma, we urge you to continue helping farmworker communities throughout Florida.