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Hurricane Charley

'The manager said we have to clean'

Migrants living in a storm-damaged trailer park in Lee County are told by management: Clean it up yourselves and keep paying rent.

Published August 18, 2004

BOKEELIA - In a small, stuffy trailer Tuesday, on the northern tip of a decimated island, an international showdown was brewing.

Moments earlier, Mexican Consul General Jorge Lomonaco from Miami walked among uprooted trees, peeled aluminum and shells of homes in the Pink Citrus Trailer Park on north Pine Island, at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.

A fraction of the park's 500 Mexican residents have remained, finding shade from a scorching sun under broken trees and awnings. Of those, about a dozen swarmed around him.

"The manager said we have to clean," 39-year-old Leticia Blanquel told him. If they don't clean the debris from the park on their own and pay the rent, they'll be out, residents said they were told.

Lomonaco had planned to visit areas populated by Mexican residents after Hurricane Charley passed. His first stop was Tuesday in Pink Citrus, located in a small unincorporated area of Lee County with a population of about 2,000. He was alerted to the park residents' woes through Spanish-language media.

As residents told him their concerns, Lomonaco listened, worried that the lives of these laborers were about to get even harder. Many of the immigrants' homes were ravaged. For some, their jobs were gone, too. But retirees and mariners on the island had something they don't: a Social Security number.

Lomonaco feared that their illegal immigration status would leave the Mexican workers the most vulnerable of all hurricane victims.

"We're concerned about their welfare," Lomonaco told a park caretaker in the cramped trailer after walking through the park in jeans and work boots.

"Yes, as are we," said caretaker Ellie Carrier, sitting behind a desk, legs crossed, an unlit cigarette between two fingers. "Unfortunately, we don't run on thin air."

"Excuse me?" Lomonaco asked, as a large fan labored in another room.

"We need money," she said.

The two quickly began talking over each other.

"It's unfair," he said.

"In this part of Florida, there are thousands of homeless people" from the hurricane, she said. "We need the lot rent in order to keep operating."

The residents, who work jobs in landscaping, construction and in citrus on mainland farms, own the trailers, but pay $190 in monthly rent for the lots, plus utilities.

"We're hoping that FEMA comes through for these people," she said. "But, unfortunately, we're not a charity operation."

If residents don't pay the rent, they risk losing their lot, she said.

"That's a threat," Lomonaco said.

The two were pointing fingers, alternately yelling, "Let me finish my sentence!"

"We're not threatening anyone," Carrier barked.

"But I don't think it's fair to be charging rent in a trailer park that isn't running at all," Lomonaco said.

If it's not running, why were there still so many people remaining in the park, she asked.

"They don't have anywhere else to go!" he yelled.

There was no running water, no septic service, no electricity, no security, he said.

"Security for what?" she shot back.

The workers need to feel safe about leaving their belongings in the trailers cracked open by trees so they can go to work or find food and water, he said.

The lack of water and electricity were not the park's fault, Carrier said.

They've been asked to clean, he said, echoing the residents' concern that if they didn't clear the fallen trees and rubble, they would lose their lots. If they stayed back to clean up the park, they couldn't work.

"They've been asked to clean around their trailer," Carrier responded.

Lomonaco told her the park managers should stop thinking about money and give the residents a break until they could get back on their feet.

His office would be asking for copies of leases, he added.

Carrier paused.

"No one who owns a trailer here has a lease," she said.

"I'm going to ask a lawyer to look into this," he said.

Lomonaco walked back outside to visit with residents.

"Don't sign anything," he told them in Spanish.

The owners of the park, registered with the state as Palm Harbor Development Group Inc. of Tampa, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Lomonaco left the residents with another strong message: They would be eligible for federal disaster aid regardless of their immigration status. His news echoed comments made Monday by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson as he toured devastated crops and citrus plants.

Word started to spread among residents in the park, many of whom said they worried more about their damaged homes than about the temporary loss of work.

Daniel Perez, 30, didn't know how he was going to find money to repair his trailer. Its windows were blown out and it was missing pieces of its walls.

Just next to his home, which he bought four years ago for $2,500 and lives in with his wife and four children, a fat oak tree torn from the ground was lying on its side. He doesn't have insurance.

Like many families, he had learned of the approaching hurricane when the children were sent home from school.

Perez hopes to return to work soon so he won't get behind on the rent.

"I'll go tomorrow, but I had to clean," he said of the debris. He hopes to hear from FEMA soon.

Some families didn't wait. They returned to Mexico, said Dante Romero, a supervisor with Honc Septic, which does clearing and construction. Romero drove through the park Tuesday bringing water and other supplies to his workers' families and looking for immigrants who needed work.

The immigrants won't come forward for help, Romero said. They worry that if they complain about possible abuse someone can turn them in for their illegal immigration status.

"These people don't know if they're going to get ripped off," Romero said.

Times staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 23:54:14]

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