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Flood strands FL farmworkers

BY SUSAN KIM | HOMESTEAD, FL | October 18, 2000

Hundreds of South Florida farmworkers are stranded by floodwaters. Leftover standing water from Oct. 3 downpours has literally trapped some in their houses for two weeks. And washed-out crops have financially stranded the rest.

The torrential rains of the no-name storm ruined vast crops of okra, squash, cucumbers grown on the outskirts of Homestead. "Crops close to canals are still floating," said Gloria Hernandez of The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc.

Soon another influx of workers will arrive to plant tomatoes and beans. But for now Hernandez, working with other response agencies, is trying to figure out how to meet people's immediate needs. Standing water -- tainted by floating dead livestock -- is still pooled on the dirt roads that lead to many migrant worker encampments. Some are permanent farmworkers who live in small ranch houses; others live in makeshift lean-tos and will soon move on. Right now, they all have a serious humanitarian need for food and cleaning supplies. Their homes were flooded along with the crops they depend on for a living.

Aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is available for qualified migrant workers. But for undocumented citizens there is no safety net. If their needs make them too visible, they'll be discovered and sent home. Often their employers won't ask for help on their behalf because they don't want to be fined for illegal hiring.

That's why farmworkers are reluctant to let their needs be known, said Judith Bunker of Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR). Even a migrant worker who is legally in the U.S. doesn't want to call attention to relatives or friends that might not be.

On Monday, response agencies met and struggled to come up with the number of farmworkers who may need basic help like food and household cleaning supplies. "There really is no tangible number," said Jesse Valencia from the American Red Cross. "What we figure is 750 on up."

The group decides the number is more like 1,800 -- 300 families with the average family size of six.

The next decision is how the help will be given. "You can't just walk into a farmworker encampment and offer help. They will hide from you," said Susan Reyna, representing the Migrant Services Council.

The help has to come through collaboration with local community organizations. "We have all these agencies willing to provide services but people here won't accept it," said Reyna.

That doesn't mean they don't need help, insisted Hernandez. "The people are waiting. We have got to take care of their immediate needs."

"Well then we need to work through you because you know the geography. You can find people," said Valencia.

The agencies decide to offer a distribution point at which farmworkers can pick up food -- beans, rice, salsa -- and supplies like cleanup kits, brooms, mops, bleach, and soap. For those unable to leave their homes -- either because they're stranded by standing water or because they have no transportation -- the group decides to deliver the goods.

All this will happen on Wednesday -- less than two days from the setup meeting. The word has to get out to the farmworker community fast. "Tell one person and the rest will find out. Word of mouth works here," said Reyna.

"Or we can make up a flyer tomorrow," said Hernandez.

The Red Cross will deliver two or three semi-loads of commodities. Lutheran Disaster Response will pay to rent a forklift and transport boxes. Catholic Charities offers storage space. If there's anything left over, it will stay earmarked for this community for future needs. "It's possible down the road that some people might not recover as quickly as others," said Bruce Netter of Catholic Charities.

The agencies also decide to rent a truck -- one large enough to drive through standing water -- to deliver food to people who still can't get out of their homes. Together, they agree to arrange for volunteers to load and unload the boxes.

"We'll get the volunteers. The same people who we're going to help, we'll ask them to help us," said Hernandez.

The group debates whether farmworkers have a need crisis counseling. They decide it's too soon to tell. "We don't know. We haven't done casework with enough families," said Hernandez. Netter added that Catholic Charities will train someone from the migrant community to serve as a crisis counselor should the need arise.

This group not only has ties to the migrant community -- Hernandez and Reyna are both former farmworkers -- but it also has experience in dealing with disasters that affect crops, whether it's a flood, a drought, or a cold snap. But disaster doesn't happen every single year. Last year, Hurricane Irene destroyed many crops, but the year before that -- "nothing," remembered Hernandez.

When disaster does strike, it brings the threat of visibility to people who'd rather go unnoticed. "These are invisible people who have a tremendous humanitarian need," said Valencia.

Reyna added that, without local churches, their help could never happen. "When ninety-nine percent of this town was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew, the churches were our salvation. It was not only the supplies they gave, but the love."

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