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Hurricane Ian recovery highlights systemic struggles for Florida farmworkers, PC(USA) partners report

Says one partner: ‘The networking is how you get stuff done’

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

Hurricane Ian, which slammed into Florida’s southwest coast on Sept. 28, was Florida’s deadliest storm since 1935. (Photo courtesy of Pat Ashley)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — It has been over a month since Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc across the Caribbean, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. But for those living in the wake of the storm, the challenges continue.

This is certainly true for Florida’s farmworker communities, whose already difficult circumstances have been compounded by Ian’s disruption and destruction.

Ian slammed into the southwestern coast of Florida as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 28, ultimately becoming the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935 with a death toll of more than 100 people. Winds reached 150 miles per hour, with storm surges of 12-18 feet in some areas. Even after the hurricane moved inland and was downgraded to a tropical storm, extreme rainfall caused flooding and damage across the state.

“In general, it’s going to take years — especially in the places hit the hardest — years to rebuild,” says Kathy Broyard, executive director of the Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network (FLAPDAN). “There is no ‘going back to normal.’ It’s more of finding a new normal, and people adapt.”

Florida has a significant population of laborers who work in the fields of the state’s many produce farms. A majority of these farmworkers are migrants, many of them undocumented. The region of southwest Florida hardest hit by Ian has a large concentration of these farmworker communities, and the hurricane destroyed the fields they worked in and their homes, as well as cutting off their access to food, water and other resources.

Six weeks after the storm moved through the area, its devastating impact on these communities is still starkly visible. The Rev. Melana Scruggs is general presbyter of Peace River Presbytery, one of the Florida presbyteries hardest hit by Ian.

The Rev. Melana Scruggs

Describing the current state of recovery efforts, Scruggs says, “The U.S. 17 Corridor from Port Charlotte up to Arcadia, which is in our presbytery — you drive that road and you see dilapidated double-wide trailers all along the road where farmworkers are living. … You just see trailers that are twisted, all the insulation is all over the mobile home area. It’s heartbreaking to see people’s whole lives out on the side of the road — farmworkers who didn’t have a lot in the first place, and no option for where else to go.”

The communities in Wimauma, Florida, near Tampa Bay were particularly severely affected. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has already made one initial deployment of resources and support to the area, with talk turning to future efforts.

Kathy Broyard

But even as efforts shift from short-term to long-term recovery, relief workers struggle to connect survivors with the resources they need. Part of the challenge, says Broyard, is a distrust of government organizations among farmworkers and their families. Another complicating issue is the lack of reliable transportation.

To overcome these obstacles, Broyard worked to coordinate a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, which serves farmworkers in and around Wimauma.

With limited transportation in the area, farmworker families who could potentially qualify for FEMA assistance weren’t able to get to the places where they could apply. Meanwhile, Beth-El — which runs a food pantry and offers Sunday worship — is a trusted community center in the local area. Together with FLAPDAN, the organizations worked to make Beth-El a FEMA registration site so farmworkers and their families could apply for assistance in a place where they already had transportation and established trust.

Farther south in Immokalee, another area with a large farmworker population, people fared much better during Ian than their counterparts to the north. The Rev. Miguel Estrada runs Misión Peniel, a ministry that serves farmworkers in Immokalee alongside the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

It’s going to take years to rebuild the places hit hardest by Hurricane Ian. Other cities in Florida were spared significant damage. (Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance)

“We were lucky this time — there was minimal destruction here,” says Estrada, adding that even those workers displaced from fields damaged in the hurricane had found work doing storm cleanup.

However, Immokalee is all too familiar with the unique risks that farmworker communities face from hurricanes. Immokalee was hit hard by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Underlying the damaging effects of hurricanes on these communities are several ongoing, systemic issues that make farmworkers and their families more vulnerable and at risk to begin with.

“Immokalee is a very vulnerable community — permanently —even without a storm.” Estrada explains. “I can’t imagine how things would have been if the storm had hit harder here. It doesn’t take a Category 5 storm to do a lot of damage here.”

The Rev. Jim Kirk (Screenshot)

The Rev. Jim Kirk, Associate for National Disaster Response at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, identifies three key issues that put farmworker communities at particular risk from storms. First, Kirk said, they tend to live in substandard housing, which isn’t resilient to even subtropical storms, so the physical impact is greater. Second, storms damage the agricultural industry and leave them without work. Third, there is fear that going to FEMA or a shelter will attract the attention of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.

Scruggs of Peace River Presbytery points out another issue: many of the businesses in the area take advantage of the workers by charging higher prices for food and gas, and lack of transportation gives workers and their families no choice but to pay.

Kirk, Broyard, Scruggs, and Estrada all agree that substandard, unsafe housing is an especially egregious problem. After Irma, Misión Peniel, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Peace River Presbytery, and other partners joined the Immokalee Fair Housing Alliance. They have been working to build hurricane-safe, affordable housing for farmworkers and their families. While Hurricane Ian delayed their progress, IFHA hopes to begin work on its first storm-safe and affordable housing development by the new year.

The successful efforts of IFHA demonstrate an important truth that Broyard also names: “The partnerships are huge and the networking that happens during blue skies — year-round … the networking is how you get stuff done.”

Maintaining such partnerships and working to address the underlying systemic issues impacting farmworkers long-term is crucial to mitigating the devastating impact of storms like Ian on these communities. However, such ongoing work requires awareness of these issues beyond the communities themselves. As Scruggs points out, too many people who consume the food that comes from farmworker labor are not aware of the realities these communities face.

“Most of us who go to the grocery store and pick our tomatoes, and lettuce, and green peppers, and mushrooms — we don’t think about where they came from. We don’t think about who labored in the field all day long, whether they had food to eat, whether they felt safe … We just don’t think about the cost of our food.”

Kirk says thinking about such realities and addressing them is a requirement of faithfulness for Christians.

“If we’re going to be faithful, we have to respond to the whole community. That means raising awareness, and not waiting for impacted communities to come to us but being proactive in reaching out to the whole community,” Kirk says. “Otherwise, we’re missing the mark.”

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