When Disaster Strikes, Remember the Farmworkers

By: Taylor Anne Fie

Natural disasters wreak havoc on the lives of many, but news reporting in the wake of recent events like Hurricane Irma and the California fires tend to focus on the damage done to crops and farms and not so much to those working them. Migrant workers suffer heavy blows from natural disasters. Even though many migrant workers have legal status through the H2A program, U.S. residency, or citizenship, they lack the financial, social, and political support that those the likes of their employers receive.

In an article from the Apopka Voice, Georgina Gustin of insideclimatenews.org states that Florida’s agricultural industry suffered billions of dollars in damages from Hurricane Irma with high winds and flooding destroying much of the citrus, sugarcane, and nursery plants the state relies on for export. The industry is supported on the backs of nearly 300,000 migrant workers in the state who are now without jobs until the next planting season. Most migrant workers live paycheck to paycheck with incomes below the federal poverty level, so even just a few weeks without work is detrimental to their health and well-being. Carmen Sesin of NBC News highlights a similar situation in California where fires have destroyed much of the wine country’s grapes. In Napa alone, roughly 2,500 farmworkers have been displaced and are in need of temporary jobs.

Natural disasters uproot farmworker families from their homes without the promise of federal aid to help them rebuild. Workers tend to live in structurally unsound mobile homes or temporary housing to begin with, and these buildings are often left the most damaged by natural disasters. Despite unlivable conditions, migrant workers often stay in their damaged homes and avoid shelters because they do not have the resources or knowledge of how to seek out assistance. For those who fear deportation, local government and volunteer organizations of affected communities publically declared during Irma that immigration status would not be asked at shelters to prevent fear of backlash on undocumented immigrants.

In the wake of natural disasters, efforts to rebuild farmworker communities are made nearly impossible by the lack of federal or state aid available to get workers back on their feet. Workers face weeks to months without income, food insecurity, and unsanitary living conditions which increase the likelihood of disease. In the Apopka Voice article by Gustin, Gene McAvoy of the University of Florida emphasizes this point, stating “they don’t have credit cards. They don’t have bank accounts…they took a disproportionate hit by the storm.” It is so important that emergency preparedness education and resources reach our farmworker communities. They, like any American, have the right to safely evacuate or seek shelter during a disaster without fear of deportation. The first step to ensuring farmworkers are protected during disasters is awareness. Emergency responders should be made aware of workers’ rights and we, as a community, should be aware of the needs and available resources for farmworkers in our own town. Only through awareness will we be able to plan and act in the best interests of farmworkers once disaster strikes.

For further reading, check out:

Wildfires in California’s Wine Country Hit Vulnerable Immigrant Farmworkers: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/wildfires-california-s-wine-country-hit-vulnerable-immigrant-farmworkers-n809871

Hurricane Irma’s Overlooked Victims: Migrant Farmworkers: http://theapopkavoice.com/hurricane-irmas-overlooked-victims-migrant-farmworkers/

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