Neza Xiuhtecutli spent most of Thursday calling and texting and retexting colleagues along Florida's storm-battered southwest coast, hoping to reach someone who can shed light on damage there.
Xiuhtecutli, executive director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, was particularly worried about the scores of migrant farmworkers who live and work in Hurricane Ian's destructive path. Undocumented workers, many of whom work the area's citrus, strawberry and sugarcane fields, are particularly vulnerable during natural disasters and in their aftermath, he said.
There are an estimated 700,000 farm workers in Florida, about half of them undocumented.
"My biggest fear is they don’t have access to food, don’t have power and don’t have information that helps them stay safe," Xiuhtecutli said. "They're vulnerable."
Hurricane Ian battered neighborhoods across Southwest Florida Wednesday. The storm came ashore just north of Fort Myers as a muscular Category 4 storm and pushed walls of storm surge into communities. Authorities have reported at least 13 deaths and search-and-rescue teams Thursday scoured inundated neighborhoods for stranded residents.
Thousands of people were displaced because of the storm, and more than 2.6 million Florida homes and businesses were without power.
The U.S. Coast Guard also rescued nine Cuban refugees Wednesday trying to reach Florida shores in rough seas and searched for more than a dozen others believed lost at sea.
Florida's undocumented migrants often live in mobile homes, trailers and other substandard structures that can be ravaged by storms. Worried about drawing attention to their legal status, they're often reluctant to evacuate to a shelter and don't qualify for federal disaster assistance after a disaster strikes.
The fate of many of the state's migrant workers remained mostly unknown Thursday as advocates and organizers struggled to reopen shelters and get phone lines working.
As they often do during natural disasters, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a statement Wednesday assuring asylum-seekers that they will not be sought at hurricane shelters. “ICE and CBP provide emergency assistance to individuals regardless of their immigration status,” it read. “DHS officials do not and will not pose as individuals providing emergency-related information as part of any enforcement activities.”
The storm's path included the farming community of Immokalee, southeast of Fort Myers, which for years has fought for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers. It was not known whether migrant workers in mobile home camps there fled to shelters or not.
Past storms have been catastrophic for migrant workers. The destructive winds of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 demolished a migrant camp near Homestead in South Florida, leaving many of its 4,000 inhabitants unaccounted for, according to The New York Times.
After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, immigrants in southeast Texas reported income or job loss because of the storm at a higher rate (64%) than U.S.-born residents (39%), according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute.
The same report showed immigrants applied for disaster assistance at a lower rate (49%) compared with U.S.-born residents (64%).
"Migrant communities are particularly vulnerable after traumatic climate events like hurricanes," said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who co-wrote the report. "They tend to be hesitant about reaching out for services, even when they know they exist."
The path of destruction taken by Ian, from southwest to northeast Florida, is an important agricultural corridor that produces much of the state's strawberries, peppers, zucchini, squash and citrus, and it is home to migrant worker camps, Xiuhtecutli said.
Scores of Haitian and Indigenous workers in the area may not understand the offers for assistance from state or federal workers, even if in Spanish, he said. Also, many of the workers don't have cars and rely on their employers for transportation, stranding many in disaster zones, he said.
As soon as streets are passable, Xiuhtecutli said, he planned to travel from his Orlando offices to the afflicted area with two generators and a team to pass out warm meals and bring some relief to what could be some of the area's most vulnerable victims.
"They're stuck where they are," he said of the migrant workers. "During storms like these, it's very difficult for them to find a way out."
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Ian tears through Florida area home to many migrant workers