No home in paradise

Some of Hurricane Irma’s most startling images came out of Florida: millions of cars fleeing north to escape the storm; the streets of Miami's financial district, Brickell, turned into rivers; destruction in the Keys. Some 50 to 75 people died across the state as a result of Irma.

By Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda

The storm also shined a spotlight on the state’s lack of affordable housing. In the Keys, thousands were left homeless, most of them workers in the service sector who are now unsure if they have a future on the island. And on the west coast, the trailers that house Immokalee’s farm workers did not withstand the hurricane.


"This is going to be a rich man's playground": Climate change threatens to accelerate gentrification in Miami

Miami gasped a sigh of relief after Irma passed. Despite dodging the worst scenario, a direct impact of a category 5 hurricane, hundreds of thousands left their coastal homes and headed north or into inner city neighborhoods, a path millions of people are expected to follow in the coming decades.

Climate change could make this exodus permanent. Experts warn of the emergence of climate gentrification: the displacement of residents from the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, which are also those that live on relatively high ground. The phenomenon is expected to reshape the southern coast of Florida and transform the real estate market. Find out more about this in the following video:

Video Report

Florida Keys

Expelled from paradise: Workers worry about their future in the Keys

Irma shook the foundations of the powerful tourism industry along the United States’ southernmost chain of islands: many of the homes destroyed by the hurricane belonged to workers. Now real estate developers are eyeing the destroyed land to build luxury condos.

While millions of people battened down their homes in preparation for Irma, real estate agents in the Florida Keys were receiving messages and calls from prospective buyers. To many, the coming hurricane was an opportunity to buy land in the chain of islands situated at the extreme south of the United States.

“From day one, when we learned that the hurricane was going to hit here, I had people calling me, looking for properties,” says Mila de Mier, a real estate agent who has worked in Key West for 20 years. It’s one of Florida’s most desirable housing markets.

She shows a message she received September 5, five days before the hurricane: “I’m most interested in Key West. I am not against a property that needs work, as long as it’s not a complete knock down. I’m looking forward to seeing what might become available in the next couple of weeks :)”

De Mier continued to receive dozens of similar messages in the days following the hurricane, when authorities still hadn’t authorized evacuated residents to return to their homes. The buyers said they had the cash to make a purchase immediately, that they didn’t care if the house was a total loss: they wanted to buy anywhere within ground zero of Irma’s zone of devastation in the United States.

Irma arrived to the Keys as a category 4 hurricane on September 10, leaving behind a panorama of destroyed boats and mobile homes, flooded apartments, collapsed roofs, uprooted trees and downed electric lines.

“For those who want to throw in the towel, the vultures are flying,” says a real estate agent in the Keys

But to some, the destruction was seen as an opportunity. The storm did the bulldozer work that many speculators had hoped for. Now, hungry buyers and developers are threatening to displace the thousands of workers that call the islands home. George Neugent, who was a mayor of Monroe County when Irma hit, estimated that the hurricane could displace more than 20% of the workers in the area’s tourism sector. De Mier warns there are plenty of people ready to take their place in paradise.

“For those who want to throw in the towel… the vultures are flying,” she says.

According to the first calculations made by Monroe County, home of the Keys, more than 10,000 homes were damaged, representing more than 18% of homes in the area.

For de Mier, Irma marked the beginning of an “epidemic” that’s going to leave many people homeless. The area between Cudjoe Key, some 20 miles north of Key West, and some of the higher keys, like Big Pine, Marathon or Islamorada, were hit hardest. Her company, Southermost Realty, went from having more than 200 properties for rent per month to just one in October.

“The demand is incredible: I have so many, many calls every day. And now that the season is beginning, all of these people who have been left without a home have to compete with the tourists,” she says.

And now that the winter season is starting, all those people who were left without a home have to compete with the tourists Nacho Corbella / Univision

No place in paradise

Among those who are trying to find an affordable place to rent is Yoly Navamuel, a thin, energetic Cuban-American woman who moved into a trailer park in Plantation Key with her wife in 2008 to enjoy their retirement.

Navamuel left behind long days as a mortgage broker in Miami to work as a server. She bought an old trailer for $20,000 and fixed it up to her liking. Her wife got a job as a teacher.

“It was a very rich life here. You know, in Miami, we worked 20 hours a day. Not here. Here, you work from 10 to 4,” she says. “At 5 p.m., you’re in your house, drinking your margarita, looking at the water. We had a porch where we sat and looked at the ocean. You came from the boat and you could take a swim watching the stars.”

But Irma took the home that they’d built and the restaurant where she worked. Within a few hours, she and her wife were left with nothing.

And she wasn’t alone. The hurricane turned the lives of the more than 100 families who lived in the Sea Breeze Trailer Park upside down. The majority of them were workers or retirees who had managed to save enough to buy themselves a trailer and rent land.

“Here, there was a man who lived there 40 years, an old guy, and his trailer is gone,” Navamuel says, pointing to the destroyed debris. Poor guy.”

Now, there are rumors that the land is being converted into a luxury urban development, one that would be much more profitable for its owners.

Replacing trailer parks with complexes is an attractive option for builders, de Mier explains, since the waiting time to obtain permits is shorter.

After the hurricane, the company that managed the Sea Breeze Trailer Park cut off access to the development.

Administrators of Sun Communities, the company in charge of the park, told Navamuel they would soon come and take away the debris.

From retirement paradise to disaster zone: the uncertain future of a trailer park in the Keys

“They told us that it’s going to take a year or a year-and-a-half to get back on its feet. That they’re going to tear down all the trailers. They’re asking for our titles to destroy them and carry them off as scrap,” she says.

Univision News contacted Sun Communities to inquire about plans for the land. There was no response at the time of publication.

While Navamuel and her wife search for an affordable place to live in the Keys, many of their neighbors have already left. One couple, who worked at a nearby nuclear plant, decided to move to Las Vegas after losing two trailers. Another couple decided to move north to start from scratch in Homestead.

"Nobody can afford to live here. Who can pay $2,000 a month?” she asks.

For decades, mobile home parks like Sea Breeze have been one of the few housing options available to workers in the area. But trailers are among the structures that are most vulnerable to hurricanes.

The situation is worse for those who are undocumented, who are afraid to seek help because of their immigration status. They’re left with no option but to live in partially destroyed trailers or crammed into friends’ homes.

María -- who preferred not to use her real name to protect her identity – is a 35-year-old Honduran woman who has lived in the Keys for eight years. The trailer that she rented for $1,200 a month flooded, leaving two rooms uninhabitable, destroying her belongings, and a good part of the electrical system.

Now, she and her husband and their two children, ages 8 and 12, sleep crammed together in the living room. They have a dehumidifier running constantly to manage mold.

Irma also scared off tourists. Since the hurricane hit, the owner of the restaurant where María worked has opened only sporadically. She and her husband now rely on his restaurant salary.

The Fort Lauderdale company that owns the trailer hasn’t told them whether they plan to fix it.

Maria and her husband are looking for a home, but it’s nearly impossible to find anything in the Keys without papers. “I don’t want to move, but imagine: given what’s happening, it’s possible I won’t find anything here,” she says.

An exodus of workers

Irma is likely to provoke an exodus of workers from the Keys. The owners of restaurants and tourism businesses say many of their employees have announced they’re moving to other places because of a lack of housing.

Hurricane Irma severely damaged the trailer where Maria, an immigrant from Honduras, and her family lives. Now, she sleeps with her husband and two sons (or son and daughter,) 8 and 12, in the living room. Nacho Corbella / Univision

Authorities are also worried. “We’re very concerned and we’re already seeing workers who say that they can’t afford to rebuild here or that their landlords has told them that they’re going to raise the rent in order to make repairs and they can’t afford it,” says Heather Carruthers, the commissioner of Monroe, who has been assigned by the county to address the crisis.

The problem is not new. During the housing crisis of 2010, many workers lost their homes, which ended up in the hands of people who wanted a vacation home in the Keys. According to county data, more than 40% of constructions in this chain of islands are used as second homes.

The strict building codes limit new constructions, and the lack of space to build houses inflates prices. There’s only one highway in and out of the Keys – US-1, which connects the Keys with the rest of the Florida peninsula – so the authorities want to limit population growth to ensure that they can evacuate all residents within 24 hours in the event of a hurricane.

Carruthers says her team says is trying to find solutions to stem the exodus of workers from the service sector, including teachers, nurses – people who she says “sustain the community.”

“I hope we can create enough affordable housing so that people who love the Keys and who have made their living here will be able to stay here. We also care about the people who want to have second homes here, but this is clearly a problem we have to tackle,” she acknowledges.

“They wanted to get rid of the houseboats and the trailers, and Irma did it for them”

The hurricane revived the Keys’ existential dilemma: to find equilibrium between the demands of the tourism sector and those of the workers who sustain it.

That was clear in mid-October, when authorities rushed to prepare for Fantasy Fest, a celebration that inaugurates Key West’s tourism high season.

While the local newspaper recommended residents “take a break from Irma” as the festival arrived, cleaning teams were working to remove mountains of debris from the highway and many of those who lost their homes in the hurricane didn’t know where to go.

Some feared being removed from the hotels where they were staying to make room for visitors, who, in high season, might pay three times as much for a room.

“I see them cleaning up the side of the road, more concerned about tourism than whether or not these [people] get back to work,” lamented Karen Carter, a 52-year old woman originally from Tennessee, who has blond, wavy hair down to her waist, a youthful appearance, and a raspy voice.

Irma swallowed the houseboat where she lived with her boyfriend in Ramrod Key, just a little more than 5 miles from where the hurricane made landfall. They planned to travel around the Caribbean aboard the boat when she retired.

In addition, she lost her job in a plant that processes sea cucumbers, a marine animal that’s harvested and sent to China, where it’s used culinary and medicinal properties. The company’s facilities were totally destroyed: the storage containers were piled atop one another and the electricity lines “looked like spaghetti,” she says.

The hurricane totally transformed the paradise where she arrived eight years ago. She says she has never felt more lost in her life.

“Before, things were easier here. But things are easier for the rich. They wanted to get rid of the houseboats and trailers, and Irma did it for them,” she says.

Karen’s boat was destroyed by Irma and she says she has never felt so lost in her life

She chose to live on a boat because it was the only thing she could afford. Now, housing has become a crisis for workers like her.

Eight of her friends have already left, with no plans to return. She says she would too, if she had an offer.

“This is what Irma is doing to the Keys. We won’t be able to live here,” she says.


At the center of destruction on Florida’s west coast: the trailers that migrant workers call home

After blowing through the Keys, Hurricane Irma headed for Florida’s west coast, making landfall on Marco Island as a Category 3. There weren’t big scenes of devastation there, nor in neighboring Naples, coastal cities known as destinations for high net worth retirees.

But more than 50 miles from the eye of the hurricane, in Immokalee, Irma devastated dozens of homes. The area is home to many migrant workers, who live in flimsy trailers. Many were lost in the hurricane. The fields where they work also sustained damage. The crisis has compelled some to look to the future with an eye for ensuring workers have more quality homes.

The farm laborers of Immokalee that Irma left homeless and jobless

We’re in Immokalee. It’s September 4, the eve of the hurricane. The majority of farm workers have decided to evacuate and take refuge in more secure concrete structures and shelters, or to travel to other states, like Georgia, the Carolinas, or Tennessee. For many, it’s a familiar trip: they migrate with the seasons to work on the farms in these places.

Here’s what it was like in Immokalee on the eve of Hurricane Irma:

Rafaela, 37-year-old farmworker, born in Hidalgo, Mexico. She has four children and a fifth on the way:

“The children were scared because they heard what their parents were saying and imagined the worst. But, as a teacher and as an adult, you have to reassure them that everything is going to be ok. I told my students – because many of their parents don’t know how to read – it was their job was to show their parents the list of shelters and tell them, ‘These are the places where we can go if we don’t feel safe.’”

Beatriz Yago, teacher at the Immokalee Community School, an elementary school primarily for children of migrant workers:

“The children were scared because they heard what their parents were saying and imagined the worst. But, as a teacher and as an adult, you have to reassure them that everything is going to be ok. I told my students – because many of their parents don’t know how to read – it was their job was to show their parents the list of shelters and tell them, ‘These are the places where we can go if we don’t feel safe.’”

Julia Perkins, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that works for the rights of farmworkers and for a living wage..

“Given the housing conditions, we knew that any impact of Irma was going to be pretty big with respect to the workers’ community ... it doesn’t have to be a Category 4 or 5 to cause serious damage to their housing. So, we began to communicate with the people, explaining how they needed to prepare because no one should stay in a trailer during a storm like that.”

On September 7, the day after Hurricane Irma hit, the farm workers began to return to their homes. Many of those who lived in trailers found their roofs blown away, rooms flooded, or homes completely destroyed. The farms where they worked also suffered damage. According to statistics from Collier County, of the 1,196 homes that were destroyed or that suffered serious damage from Irma, 866 were trailers (more than 72%).


“When I returned to my home, it was really sad. When I looked at my room, it had nothing: the furniture was destroyed, the TV had fallen down, the kids’ clothes, the bed… everything was soaking wet. Everything in the living room was destroyed, and water was leaking from everywhere. We found our roof over there; we found the walls on the street over there. We picked up whatever we could and brought it back. We put it back, but water keeps leaking.I am staying in the living room with my kids, in the bed there. My husband, two sons and I sleep there, and our two girls sleep in the other room.”

Héctor, 7-year-old student, Rafaela’s son:

“The hurricane hit the roof of my mom’s room and later, when my mom went to her room, she was crying because everything was broken. The room was destroyed by the hurricane and my dad had to build everything again. We’re still in the same home, but someday, when she has more money, we’re going to buy something and we’re going to move.”

Beatriz Yago:

“The week after the hurricane, I worked as a volunteer, giving out food and water. I saw many of my students and their parents. Obviously, many of the kids are too young to understand what’s happening. They only thought that there was no school because there was no school, but in the faces of the parents I could see some fatigue, some worry, because they weren’t even going to have work because the fields are full of water. In addition, many parents were fearful and they’re still afraid and they ask me for help because they are undocumented.

Florida has the most trailers of any state in the U.S. As Irma demonstrated, they are very vulnerable to harsh weather conditions. In Immokalee, 75% of the population is Latino and 43% live below the poverty line. Many Latino farmworkers labor in the tomato, chile, or citrus fields, and don’t have any other place to live.

Furthermore, undocumented farmworkers can’t ask for help when they’re affected by hurricanes or don’t dare to do so because they are afraid.

Zulaika Quintero, director of the Immokalee Community School:

“In the school, we have 10 or 15 families with half their trailers damaged. If they weren’t destroyed, they were damaged. Trailers aren’t in the best conditions. This housing shouldn’t even be offered anymore but it’s the only thing there is and it’s the only thing that our parents can afford. And that’s why sometimes there are two families living in a trailer, and sometimes even more because (housing) is expensive and it’s the only thing they can rent because they don’t have papers.”

Julia Perkins:

“Even though wages (for farm work) vary from week to week, a worker can make between $200 and $300 in an average week. People usually pay some $60 per person per week for the trailers, and they can live with up to 12 people. In some trailers families pay $300 a week. That’s more than $1200 or $1550 a month. The workers who come here and who don’t have families are always the last on the list of people who are going to receive any type of support or help. But they’re the ones who are doing the work that makes sure we – the rest of the country – eat.”


“The inspector from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) who came here was moved and said, ‘How is it possible that you live here with these kids – this is uninhabitable!’ I told them, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go.’ And they said, ‘I’m going to send a second inspector who can help you as fast as possible because of the kids.’ They never sent the other inspector and, to date, no one has talked to us or come to see us.

It’s incredibly difficult to find a place to live here. Look close and you can see that there are usually two families living together. As soon as someone moves out, their place is already taken by another family. I went twice to ask about government-assisted apartments. I told them that that my roof had been torn off, that I didn’t have a place for my kids, and they asked me for pay stubs. I earn cash, so I told them what I can bring is a letter, and they said no. Another said no because I’m not a resident or a citizen. So, I don’t understand what kind of help the government is providing with those apartments. It was an emergency.”

Farmworkers struggle to find housing. The hurricane only made it worse. Some in Immokalee are starting to think about a future with better homes for workers:

Beatriz Yago:

“I think the (hurricane) was like a wake-up call for many adults and even kids, so that they understood: ‘Now I know what I have to do when I grow up.’

In second grade, we have a unit about hurricanes. In Florida, hurricane season is from June to October. We read it in April so that the kids would know how to prepare themselves: with a small bag, a backpack, a flashlight, a change of clothes, something like that, so that they’re ready and so they know what they have to take in their bag.”

Julia Perkins:

“Here in Immokalee, a lot of people are thinking about how to fix this situation. They know we need to think longer-term about decent living arrangements that are accessible to workers. We need to think about how houses can sustain hurricane-force winds, but that’s something that’s going to take more time. But we should have more options for workers, decent options, options that don’t require them to worry that their roof is going to blow away, that are built to sustain a storm. Working people deserve a decent home. They deserve to live in places where they’re not worried about roof leaks, about too many people living in one place. They should be more relaxed, in a place where anyone would feel comfortable living.”

A special report by Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda
All Credits

Project: Univision Noticias

Texts: Lorena Arroyo, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez (Cuba)

Video: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Almudena Toral, Andrea Patiño, Laura Prieto, José Luis Osuna, Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons, Ricardo Weibezahn

Design and dev: Juanje Gómez

Project coordination: Nathalie Alvaray, Selymar Colón, José López

Photo: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Lorena Arroyo

Text editing: María Sánchez Díez

Data: Ronny Rojas, Dilia Márquez, Antonio Cucho

Social networks: María Carolina Hurtado, Esther Poveda, Nacho Corbella, Ricardo Weibezahn

Digital product: Daniela Jaramillo

Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo, Melvin Félix

English texts editing: David Adams, Jessica Weiss, Mónica Isola

Additional thanks: Maye Primera, Inger Díaz, Alejandra Vargas, Patricia Clarembaux, Patricia Vélez, Carmen Graciela Díaz, Luis Velarde, David Maris,Angélica Gallón