Hurricane Ian wasn’t just Florida’s deadliest hurricane since 1935, but also the US’s second costliest disaster, after Katrina, with at least $60 billion in damages—much of which will take years to fully repair.
Rebuilding communities after natural disasters has largely become the role of migrant workers. But they’re often taken advantage of by untrustworthy recruiters, have their wages stolen, and work under dangerous conditions. Many are undocumented and, as a result, make less money on average; at the height of the Katrina rebuild, undocumented workers earned $10 per hour compared to $16 for those who were documented.
The post-Ian cleanup so far looks familiar: Laborers are coming to Florida from North Carolina, New Orleans, and even from Dallas, Texas—15 hours away. What’s different now is that this rebuild comes at a particularly tense political moment in the state. Governor Ron DeSantis has taken a hard line on immigration; notably, on September 14, DeSantis flew about 50 recently arrived Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, in an apparent political play to show blue states evidence of a border crisis.
So, to add to the labor issues undocumented workers face, there’s the looming worry of deportation. The Department of Homeland Security announced last week that ICE would not conduct immigration checks at emergency supply sites or evacuation routes. But these protections, typical after such disasters, are temporary.
The organization Resilience Force represents these migrant workers, who it calls “the essential workers of the climate change era.” It advocates for fair wages, on-time payments, and health and safety measures, as well as for protected status and citizenship in the longer term. Given the current circumstances in Florida, these needs are especially salient. We talked to Resilience Force’s executive director, Saket Soni, who has been on the ground in Fort Myers since shortly after Ian made landfall.
What are you seeing right now?
We have been visiting the hubs of destruction. We’re seeing impenetrable roads, homes with their roofs blown off, miles-long lines for gas, and residents struggling to find propane tanks and fighting over basic necessities at Home Depots and grocery stores.
It’s pretty clear that rebuilding will take years. Two to three years at a minimum. While the storm surge destroyed a lot of hotels and resorts—which would be bad enough because that’s the basis of jobs in that economy—there’s [also] extensive wind damage inland, even where the water couldn’t reach. And inland, further away from the beach, is where working-class and middle-class people live. These are the people who are uninsured or underinsured.
Why is it so urgent for workers to come to Florida and start the recovery?
Everyone’s under enormous pressure. Homeowners are under pressure to come back home, [but] they can’t yet safely. Parents are under pressure, because it’s the middle of the school year; they need to put their kids back in school, but the schools are flooded or damaged. The mayor and the governor are under enormous pressure, because if things don’t get fixed in time, people move away. Then the tax base bleeds out [and] revenue dries up, and ultimately, municipalities can fall into a death spiral. So the stakes are high. The race is on, and everyone is waiting for the workers—and the workers are beginning to arrive.
Who are these workers, and how are they recruited?
These are resilience workers: The people who rebuild city after city, storm after storm. Many of them are seasoned [and] comprise a transient workforce that’s on the move and have many hurricanes under their belts. These are workers who were already rebuilding Louisiana after the hurricanes of last year, or the year before.
But, because of the vastness of the destruction, many more workers are needed. Now, you’re seeing more people enter the workforce, including newly arrived immigrants, who themselves are desperate for work and want to come and join the rebuilding efforts. Many are undocumented. [Others] have asylum applications in, waiting for decisions, but still have only the most tenuous foothold in America—and they’re going to spend that time rebuilding Florida.
There’s a mushrooming industry of worker recruitment, made up mostly of fly-by-night labor brokers, who run ads on WhatsApp, accumulate lists, [and] recruit people based on promises of high wages and overtime—and then bring workers down and attempt to provide those workers to larger contractors for a profit. My concern for those workers is [that] we often see the promises not being kept. We often see recruitment by fraud.
What problems do they run into?
Wage theft is endemic to the industry. A member of ours [who] was rebuilding Louisiana after Hurricane Ida was owed $5,000, and when he tried to cash the check, it bounced. He approached the contractor, and the contractor threatened to call law enforcement to punish the worker. The threat of deportation, either explicit or implicit, is often wielded to undercut workers when they’re trying to negotiate fair pay—or, for that matter, anything.
Worker housing is an extraordinary problem. Workers who arrive on their own sleep in their cars. People who are brought by labor brokers are often housed eight to a hotel room, or inside the dangerous, damaged, flooded homes that they are rebuilding. Those are terrible conditions.
What are you doing to help?
We’re helping seasoned workers train the new arrivals, but we’re also getting private industry to embrace our standards. We are connecting [them] to contractors who desperately need them—but only if those contractors embrace our standards, including full and on-time payment of wages, zero wage theft, key health and safety provisions. And generally, looking at workers as an asset.
Ultimately, there really needs to be some infrastructure for these workers. Particularly as they’re doing work connected to FEMA, it’s possible for FEMA to decide they’re going to spend the money housing these workers so they can stay long term and complete the work. That’s, we hope, where things will go with government.
What work are they doing?
Workers are on roofs with rolls of blue tarp, which they nail into roofs. That’s what saves homes from the next rain shower. Then, workers will go into those homes, pull out everything that’s damaged, rebuild walls and floors, and get homes back up to code, so that local authorities feel comfortable switching the lights back on. Only when homes are back up to code will local authorities feel safe allowing families to return. In the next few weeks, we’ll see schools [and] large commercial projects, like resorts and hotels, start to get rebuilt.
This will take a minimum of two to three years. So, the hope is that DHS sticks with [its] policy—but it needs to go further. We need assurances and policy from DHS that it’ll protect workers whose employers are threatening law enforcement action and deportation when those workers ask for their wages.
Could the contribution of these workers change perceptions about immigrants, both among government and the public?
You’ve got mayors and county officials who desperately need a recovery, and their only hope is immigrant workers. The immigrant workers are not uneducated about Florida politics. They read the news, and they saw the [Martha’s Vineyard] events unfold the last few weeks. Our effort will be to have those two sides build bonds. I’m putting my faith in local elected officials, who are ultimately leaders of recovery, to tell Governor DeSantis how important the immigrant workers are. I’m putting my faith in companies and contractors, who need those workers for their business, to tell Governor DeSantis how important these workers are.
Tragedies make people change their minds about all kinds of things. After hurricanes, large numbers of homeowners…suddenly realize that their ability to come home depends entirely on immigrants. We offer opportunities for homeowners to express gratitude—and gratitude is a deep human need. When a homeowner finally gets to that day when the floor is dry, the walls are repaired, the roof is like new, and you can come home—that homeowner wants to thank someone. And we make sure workers are there for the homeowners to thank them. We do all of that to cement the shift in attitude, and to solidify the bonds between immigrants and non-immigrants whose homes they help rebuild.