It was only noon on Monday, but Elvira Carvajal had already lost count of the many phone calls she was receiving.
“Wait,” she told one visitor as she picked up the cell phone ringing insistently in her small office at the Farmworkers Association of Florida in Homestead.
Another desperate person was on the line.
“I’m calling to find out where I can find work,” said the woman, almost begging. “Right now I can tell you that we have nothing, not even food, because the hurricane took everything.”
Carvajal listens patiently, although she has little to offer the caller or the hundreds of others who lost their farm jobs in southern Miami-Dade County over the past two weeks.
Hurricane Irma battered the agricultural fields in areas like Florida City, Homestead and the Redlands, flattening hundreds of acres of crops, especially okra and avocados. Now the people who plant, care for and harvest some of the products that wind up on tables all over the United States have lost their source of income. They don’t have money to buy food, pay their rent or utilities.
“The rent is due, the electricity bill is coming and we have two weeks without picking any crops,” said Sofia, a Mexican migrant and mother of three who asked that her surname not be published. “Thank God they opened the school, so my children can eat there.”
Sofia, who lives in subsidized housing for farmworkers in Florida City, said she usually works eight hours a day harvesting okra and earns about $200 a week. Her housing complex lost electricity for eight days, so she had to throw away everything in her fridge.
Irma’s damages in South Dade are not as grave or visible as in other rural parts of South Florida. In Immokalee to the west, the hurricane knocked down mobile homes and flooded neighborhoods. But farmworkers all over are desperate. They live paycheck to paycheck and many are undocumented.
“More and more people are coming for help … They are poor people, and even when two people in the house work they barely manage to pay the rents, which are increasingly expensive,” said Carvajal. “We are evaluating the needs for the short and long term, because this (recovery) could take a long time.”
Many of the farmworkers could remain jobless until the bean and pumpkin season, which usually starts at the end of October.
THEY NEED FOOD
An elderly man walked into Carvajal’s office around 3 p.m. and quietly took a seat until she asked what he needed.
“I was coming to see if you could help me with anything, with a bit of food, whatever you have,” the man said in a low voice, as if he was embarrassed to ask.
There’s no more food.
The association had already distributed the donations it collected before the hurricane hit. Carvajal told him that whatever food comes in during the week will be distributed on Sunday. Most urgently needed are beans, lentils and rice, and not canned if possible.
The Red Cross and Farm Share have distributed food, especially canned goods, in plazas near the farmworkers’ housing. People have waited in line under the harsh sun to receive the assistance. But the supplies are limited and run out quickly. Farmworkers also receive help from churches and organizations like We Count, a group that helps migrants.
Those organizations provide hot food on weekends, water and ice, but they also play key roles in distributing information about assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other services available.
The Centro Campesino, for example, published information about financial support for people who did not work because of Hurricane Irma, available through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
But many of the farmworkers don’t qualify for subsidies because they are undocumented. Many don’t speak English and some don’t speak Spanish or Creole, only their native indigenous languages. Even those who could qualify for food stamps or other federal assistance because they have children born in the United States are afraid to ask, said immigration activists.
The hurricane did not pummel everyone equally. Some of the workers in nurseries, especially for ornamental or aromatic plants, were able to return to their jobs one week after Irma passed.
“The boss called us to clean up and pick up, but now they don’t need a lot of workers. You should see how everything wound up, all down and dead,” said Marina Mateo, a Honduras native, as she helped to fold donated clothes in the offices of We Count on Krome Avenue. “For now we have only debts, because we spent a week without work, eating dry bread.”
While most farmworkers harvest products in season and are paid by how much they pick, nursery workers have more desirable jobs because they work year-round and are paid by the hour, said Mateo.
“Uy, a lot of people have come looking for jobs, the people who were left with nothing,” said Mateo, who earns $8 an hour and lives in a small apartment.
Epifania Bautista and Vicente Cruz, from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, said they went to several nurseries looking for work but had no luck.
The couple usually picks okra in a small family farm, and they live in the Everglades housing complex for farmworkers, in Florida City. They are paid $3 per box, and some days they barely harvest 10 boxes between them.
When they left the shelter where they rode out Hurricane Irma, they went straight to the fields where they usually work Monday through Friday, from 4 a.m. until shortly after noon.
“There was nothing good left. It took everything,” said Cruz. “It knocked down the little plants, the furrows were flooded and we don’t know whether anything could be saved,” added Bautista.
They returned one week after the hurricane and found just empty fields, with just a few okra plants spared by the tractor that plowed everything else under.
It was 10 a.m. and the couple, whose families back in Oaxaca depend on what little money they can send, were calculating their expenses as they walked down the furrows. On a normal day they would have been covered up to their eyes, wearing hats, kerchiefs, gloves and boots as they harvested the vegetables.
It was $550 for the rent, about $68 for electricity and $95 for three months of water. They also had to pay for gasoline, and have “nothing, nothing, nothing” to eat in the fridge.
Cruz stopped and picked an okra, not green but brown. “Look how it is, all hard,” he said, breaking it open to show its insides.
It was dry.
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar
How to help
Donations are accepted at:
▪ Farmworkers Association of Florida, 450 Davis Parkway, Florida City, FL 33034. Phone: (305) 247-0072.
▪ We Count, 201 N. Krome Ave., Suites 230-260, Homestead, FL 33030. Phone: (305) 247-2202