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Their better lives ripped to shreds

For the migrant farmworkers who grind out a living in Florida's fields, Hurricane Wilma destroyed homes, jobs and dreams.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published October 25, 2005


IMMOKALEE - He stood under the Monday afternoon sun, wearing the look of a man whose dreams have not come true.

"I feel a little sad," he said. "I don't know English. I don't know how to make ends meet. I don't have any way to survive."

Alfredo Perez, 45, fled Guatemala eight months ago and came to rural Florida to work as a day laborer. He came in search of a better life for himself and the seven children he left behind. What he got was a hurricane that left him homeless and even poorer than before.

Wilma blew through this rural corner of Florida, killing at least one woman and shredding the small trailer Perez shared with six other migrant workers. It sheared away the roof and walls, blew out the windows, soaked the inside and left behind only agony about what struggles lie ahead.

And Wilma's wind and rain have put the crops in danger, and with it, their livelihoods.

"We don't know whether we'll be able to stay here," Perez said. "If there is no work, we will have to go somewhere else."

Each fall, thousands of farmworkers flock to this rural outpost 30 miles northeast of Naples. They come from other construction and fieldwork jobs up north in time for the tomato picking season.

Seldom have they faced the threat of a hurricane this late in the year. Most live in shabby houses or packed sardine-like into decrepit trailers that rent for up to $250 a week. Many of the houses flooded on Monday, and many of the cramped trailers lost roofs and walls.

The storm couldn't have come at a worse time. October has been a meager month for the farmworkers - mostly Mexicans, Guatemalans and Haitians. They've been getting work only a couple of days a week, waiting for the crops to come in.

Gov. Jeb Bush vowed Monday to make sure Florida's rural communities aren't forgotten. He said he was especially worried about farmworkers and lower-income families. He knows what everyone here knows all too well: that the area's main employer - agriculture - will suffer.

Lucas Benitez is worried, too. He drove the streets of Immokalee Monday afternoon, checking on the people he calls "the poorest of the poor."

"The whole crop, I think, is lost," said Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. "It's bad for the farmworkers. I don't know what will happen to these people."

He said many illegal workers are reluctant to ask for help, scared that they might face deportation. Benitez said many workers didn't go to shelters for fear they would be arrested because they are in the country illegally. Those fears continue. Local officials assured Benitez that no one would have to show identification for aid such as ice and water, news which he and others went door to door to spread.

Even so, illegal workers don't qualify for most government disaster assistance programs such as cash vouchers or temporary housing. That, coupled with the fear of asking for help, means many likely will suffer in silence.

They will not suffer alone in this town.

At Esquina Santos Corner, a collection of rooming houses in downtown Immokalee, the migrant workers, construction workers, the elderly and infirm and old, whites and blacks and Hispanics - everyone sleeps without privacy on thin beds, separated by only 3 or 4 feet. A sign on the wall advertises the rent - $7 a day, $40 a week, $150 a month.

Wilma took the roof off half of the place Monday, dumping water on the poor souls inside and destroying what little they owned. It also left them to mourn Mary Howell, 65, who died when a piece of roof fell on her as she ran from her small room to the main boarding house. They remembered her as the woman who loved cats, who worked on puzzle books and collected teddy bears. They called her "Mother."

In the dark, damp gloom of the boarding house, her 38-year-old daughter, Betty McDougal, sat on a chair and cried.

"She helped everybody," she said. "She never did anybody no wrong."

Outside, Mother Mary's body lay on the concrete, covered by a green blanket. Roosters pecked the ground around her, and the clouds gave way to a cool, sunny afternoon.

The migrants of Immokalee did not spend time feeling sorry for themselves or waiting for handouts or complaining about the lack of help. Instead, they spent the day like most others - in hard labor. They cut tree limbs away from power lines. They helped neighbors patch roofs and walls. They worked and worked, and hoped for more paying work down the road.

At the busted trailer just off Highway 29, Alfredo Perez and his relatives stuffed a few plastic bags with their belongings and packed the car. He had no idea where they would lay their heads for the night.

"We're just going to drive," he said.

On a bedroom wall hung a small metal cross, and not far away, a Bible, written in Spanish and soaked through with rain. He would leave those behind but not his belief in God.

"It's something that God sent us," he said of the hurricane. "Man could never do this."

He took one last look around the place where he had come eight months earlier, so full of dreams. Then he turned to leave.

--Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 25, 2005, 04:20:09]


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