When Hurricane Idalia hit last week, Michael Burnett’s bayside home in Crystal River, Florida was inundated by a noxious cocktail of stormwater and sewage from drains bursts that reached to his chest.
“We lost everything we owned,” said Mr Burnett, a gun shop manager. “All my children’s clothes, all my guitars, all my guns, everything I collected is gone.”
He added: “The only saving grace was those guys who came to my house. »
The ‘guys’ are four undocumented men he hired to help him sort through the mud, members of an immigrant workforce that in recent years has helped communities in Florida and other states. to clean up and rebuild after climate disasters, with thousands of these workers rushing in. .
But as hurricane season intensifies this year, their supply may be tighter in Florida.
In May, Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation to discourage illegal immigrants from living and working in the state. The law, which he described as the nation’s most aggressive crackdown, denies driver’s licenses issued overseas to undocumented immigrants, criminalizes transporting such immigrants to Florida and punishes the companies that hire them.
“There’s a lot of work, but we can’t risk being deported,” said Maria, a Honduran immigrant to Louisiana who worked in Florida after Hurricane Ian last year but said she would now give up going there to help clean up after the storm. “We stay put.”
Like other undocumented people interviewed for this article, she asked to be identified only by her first name, out of concern for her family’s safety.
After the Florida legislature passed the measure, but before it even took effect on July 1, Maria and other immigrants said they were harassed by police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the state. Today, they are expressing fear that law enforcement will arrest them and hand them over to federal authorities for detention and deportation. DeSantis’ office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on questions about law enforcement or the impact of immigrant decisions on the hurricane recovery.
Carlos, an undocumented worker who lives in Texas and drives with a license from Maryland, said he usually assembles a crew that cleans up debris in Florida after hurricanes, then does repairs, installs doors, windows and shutters. flooring.
They worked non-stop for seven months in Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian, he said, as one satisfied customer after another recommended his team to friends. But when Parliament passed the immigration law, he said, they left Florida as quickly as possible.
Although Idalia has flooded hundreds of homes and businesses from the Tampa Bay area to Florida’s Big Bend area, “we’re absolutely not going to” help with the recovery, Carlos said from Houston, where he has lived 13 of his 20 years in the United States.
“Imagine being arrested and deported for doing work that really helps people,” he said, adding, “We have families.”
While it’s impossible to know for sure how many undocumented immigrants are staying away, more than half of 1,000 people surveyed informally this summer by Resilience Force, a nonprofit group that organizes workers rescue workers and offers them safety training, said they did not plan to return to Florida during hurricane season because of the law.
“Floridians will need thousands of trained relief workers to rebuild their homes after Idalia, but they may not have any,” said Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force.
“These workers are overwhelmingly immigrants,” he said.
Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast last Wednesday, with 125-mile-per-hour winds ripping roofs off homes, downing power lines and toppling trees. Crashing storms and torrential rains inundated low-lying areas like Crystal River, about 80 miles north of Tampa.
The amount of water overwhelmed the city’s sewage system. The pressure was such that, in the Burnett home, water gushed out of the toilet like a geyser, piercing the ceiling and flooding every room. Mr Burnett, 43, and the family’s dog, Layla, were trapped inside, the putrid water standing six feet high by the time firefighters with an airboat rescued them.
When Kelly Burnett, 37, returned home with her 3- and 7-year-old children, the family’s business had been reduced to a “shit-soaked mess”, she recalled.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “We were literally lost.”
Mr. Burnett suffers from eczema exacerbated by prolonged exposure to bacteria. The couple’s elderly parents could not help them.
While visiting Home Depot to buy supplies, he spotted Latino men holding up a sign that read “Demolition, Restoration and Hauling.”
Mr Burnett asked for their help, and before he even got home, the men had pulled up outside his turquoise house. Workers rummaged through piles of toys, clothes and other items, as well as sodden and crumbling boxes for four days, totaling $500 a day.
“If they found something in the pile that they thought was sentimental, they would bring it to us,” Ms Burnett said – like a picture of herself as a little girl.
Mr Burnett, who gave the men an extra $500 on their last day working for him, said: ‘If these people are willing to do this, make some money helping people they don’t know, they should have the whole world. .”
The leader of the group, a Honduran named Rogelio who has worked in storm cleanup since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said they decided to risk a trip to Florida, “trusting in God to protect us.”
“A lot of owners are asking for help,” he said, “but the workers just aren’t there. »