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Migrant workers hard hit

Two months of hurricanes have caused pain for residents across Florida and the southeast, including the migrant worker population.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | September 30, 2004

"Many of them will probably be coming back to find their homes gone."

—Alicia Santana

Two months of hurricanes have caused pain for residents across Florida and the southeast, including the migrant worker population.

In Florida, the state chapter of the East Coast Migrant Headstart Project (ECMHP), an agency that normally provides the Headstart Program to children of migrant workers, has shifted its focus to disaster response for the migrant families. Working in cooperation with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) and other non-profits across the state, ECMHP is addressing basic emergency needs in the areas just hit by Hurricanes Jeanne and Ivan, and long-term needs in the areas hit by Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

"We've received 200 applications for assistance so far," said Alicia Santana, Florida ECMHP coordinator for disaster response. "So we're asking for donations, we're setting up a distribution center in Ft. Pierce, we're trying to get mobile homes donated, and we're just doing our best to match up the needs with the services of agencies we work with."

Another task for ECMHP is contacting the migrant worker families who had moved temporarily to states like Alabama and Georgia for harvest seasons there. Because so many families are gone for the season, the prospect of so many returning later in October will prolong the emergency needs aspect of the recovery process.

"Many of them will probably be coming back to find their homes gone," explained Santana. "Once the families start returning it will be much more difficult. The citrus crop is 90% destroyed down here. We'll see a lot of unemployment and other troubles. So right now we're working as fast as we can to have things in place to be ready for their return."

The hurricanes affected much of the ECMHP staff as well, adding another challenge to the response. Santana said the agency is doing all it can to assist the affected staff, but in the meantime the employees have been amazing by helping others while also helping themselves

ECMHP employees and volunteers are loaning translation skills to migrant worker families. Santana and the staff have heard many instances of families being turned away by the disaster recovery centers because no translators were available. "You can imagine how frustrating it is to stand in line all day and then receive no help. The language barrier is a big issue."

Helping drive families to relief centers is another aspect of ECMHP response. With ten centers across Florida and another 27 RCMA centers around as well, Santana said they have good coverage. Families that stop by the centers to register for help can also sign up for disaster food stamps if they are qualified. "It's a two month supply of food stamps, and right now many of the usual requirements are waived so more people can receive them."

ECMHP has offices all across the South and along the East Coast. The Steele, Ala., office of the agency is actually helping the other side of the Florida response - those families figuring out if they can return to Florida after the harvest season in Alabama.

"The majority of the families we help live in Florida when not working here," said Teresa Johnson, director of the Chandler Mountain chapter of the ECMHP. "Some might try to stay here to find work, but that will be very hard. There are hardly any other crops to harvest, so there are few jobs. Yet now there won't be many jobs in Florida either. We're worried about them having to pay two rents if they stay here longer."

The tomato harvesting season in the tiny central Alabama town of Steele was already hard enough this year, with heavy spring rains delaying the beginning of the season and then the hurricane floods damaging the crops enough to cut the season short. Johnson said her office is holding a seminar for the families Thursday, which will include an immigration speaker and sessions on how to budget money.

According to the teachers the Steele Headstart office employs, the children are handling the rough times very well so far. "The families are already in transition so often, the kids are kind of used to it," explained Johnson. "But the parents are stressed out, so we're hoping Thursday's meeting will help them find some more direction."

Some emergency help is on the way from other ECMHP chapters, including donated toiletries, first aid items, some clothing, and other basic need items. Right now the Steele office is also focusing on asking local farmers if they have any extra jobs that the workers could do for the time-being. "Some might have cleanup tasks after the hurricane, but again, there's not much to do around here.

Unfortunately, (the workers) are kind of an invisible population. But they make a big impact on the community by helping the farmers and spending their money here."

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