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The immigrants of Immokalee; overlooked after Irma

Not far from the wealthy mansions of Naples, many immigrant agricultural workers in Florida lost homes in the storm and now worry about their farm jobs. Many of those affected live in mobile homes, which could not withstand the hurricane-force winds.
15 Sep 2017 – 12:42 PM EDT
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Sandra Guzman, left, with her daughter Maria Valentine Romero, right, and their friend Rosa Pulito, back, are pictured in front of Sandra's mobile home which was destroyed after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 Crédito: REUTERS/Stephen Yan

IMMOKALEE, Fla. - They are perhaps the most overlooked in Irma's path. The storm ripped through the flimsy mobile homes of immigrant farming families in one of the poorest corners of southwest Florida: the agricultural fields of Immokalee, a few miles inland from the canals and wealthy mansions of Naples.

Now blue sky shines through the roof of Eustolia Flores' humble house after Irma tore the roof off in Eden Park, a neighborhood of trailer homes. Surrounded by water, they fear their homes may now be contaminated by wastewater.

"Here is the kitchen, see how it looks," said Flores, standing in the splintered ruins of her trailer. "This is the mattress of my oldest child, it used to be over there," she added, lifting up the damp bed and pointing to where it once stood on the other side of the room.

That's the bad news. The good news is that damage to local farms isn't as bad as feared and they will be back to work quickly, clearing fields for planting season.

Flores and her five children fled to northern Florida two days before the hurricane, and came home to find the house devastated.

Many of the residences in this area are uninsured mobile homes and befell the same fate, according to the local fire department, which said 50 to 60 homes were badly damaged or destroyed.

Immokalee is an agricultural population and the inhabitants are mostly Mexican workers living in mobile homes. The areas grows tomatoes and other vegetables, including jalapenos, eggplant and cucumber, which are picked by immigrant workers, who earn about $30 a day.

Irma caught the winter season early and planting was just getting underway, limiting losses, said Jaime Weisinger, director of community relations at Lipman, one of the nation's largest open field tomato growers. At this time of year Florida is just gearing up as farms in California's central valley and the eastern shore of Virginia are in full production.

Losses in citrus will be far greater as half the trees lost their fruit. "In this area it's almost total devastation," said Weisinger.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam took an aerial tour Wednesday of areas affected by Irma, including citrus groves in central and southwest Florida. "It’s clear that our signature crop has suffered serious and devastating losses from Hurricane Irma,” Putnam said.

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"Plenty of work"

On the tomato and vegetable front, Weisinger expected the season would be delayed just a few short weeks. "We were not fully planted so we should be able to recover."

The most important news, he said, was that all of Lipman's workers came through in one piece and "there will be plenty of work for everyone."

In fact, there will be extra work cleaning up the mess in the fields before planting. "It's all hands on deck," he said.

On Sunday, 820 people sought shelter in the Immokalee High School gymnasium. After returning to find their homes with no water or electricity, local officials said the shelter will remain open indefinitely.

The Red Cross started serving school food as more shipments came in on Wednesday. Hundreds of residents queued for emergency donations as a group of volunteers from Atlanta gave out groceries and sanitary items.

"That hurricane was the devil"

In another house Irma ripped off the roof like it was wallpaper, destroying everything inside. "The roof flew over that way," said longtime resident Eddy Silva, pointing with his arm. "That hurricane was the devil, it was going to end the world."

Piles of debris, the shells of homes and usless pieces of furniture sit to dry in the hot sun.

Aurelia Diaz and her three children survived Irma in her small trailer home. "We were scared but thank God we weren't hurt," she said, describing how a neighbor's roof blew off, just missing her trailer.

Guatemalan immigrant Aura Gaspar totaled up storm-related expenses of about $600 while using a twig-fired grill to stew chicken on her front stoop in Immokalee; she has three school-age children to feed and a two-week-old baby.

But Gaspar said her husband Juan Francisco got a job cleaning up storm debris in the Fort Myers and Naples area. He needed work, she said through a translator: Their storm preparations cost nearly twice as much as his weekly pay of $320.

“We had to prepare the house so it would protect us,” said Gaspar, 28.

Larry and Elida Dimas didn’t have much to begin with, and Hurricane Irma left them with even less.

The storm peeled open the roof of the old mobile home where they live with their 18-year-old twins, and it destroyed another they rented to migrant workers in Immokalee, one of Florida’s poorest communities. Someone from the government already has promised aid, but Dimas’ chin quivers at the thought of accepting it.

“I don’t want the help,” said Larry Dimas, 55. “But I need it.”

"They work hard here"

Beside his ruined Immokalee mobile home, Dimas is trying to get back on his feet, but it’s tough.

Dimas earns a meager living cooking hamburgers and chicken in a food truck parked by his home, and some customers already have returned — he said he sold all 40 of the hamburgers that were still safe to cook Tuesday.

Dimas needs to replace the income from his rental trailer, already condemned after being split open by the wind. Dimas had used that money to help feed his two teenagers and pay for the rescue inhalers he needs for his asthma. Losing it will only make it harder for Dimas to do what he says is one of his favorite things — providing free or reduced-rate food to those who have even less.

Coping with Irma’s aftermath is only making life tougher for people with little who live in places including unincorporated Immokalee, said Dimas.

“A lot of people work. They work hard here. They don’t ask for nothing. They just go to work, come home and something like this happens, it’s ..,” Dimas said. “I don’t know what to say.”

He stopped talking and turned away to keep from crying.

Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami.