Nearly all of Florida is reeling from Hurricane Irma. But in this rural, agricultural city bordering the Everglades, the storm has taken nearly everything from people who had very little to begin with.
Many homes — mostly uninsurable trailers — are gone or heavily damaged. The fields where they work have been flooded or scoured by wind. They have families to support, mouths to feed, trailers to fix, looters to watch out for and no idea when they’ll have an income again.
Everyone’s road to recovery is difficult after getting hammered by the winds associated with a hurricane. Without help, it seems impossible for the people of Immokalee.
By the time Irma hit on Sunday, 820 people sought shelter in the cavernous Immokalee High School gymnasium. Two hours after the storm ended, a jubilant 700 left — the first man out the door stepping on a catfish borne aloft by Irma’s fierce wind. But this wasn’t a shelter needed just for the storm — it was a refuge for the aftermath.
After returning to ravaged homes with flooded driveways and no water nor electricity in sticky Florida September heat, nearly 500 sought shelter Tuesday night. Officials said the shelter will remain open indefinitely. Collier County officials said several homes were lost in the city, but that crews were still conducting damage assessments.
The high school was still the only place with power in the city Wednesday afternoon, Ross Hollander, the American Red Cross shelter director, said. The emergency food ran out Tuesday, and the Red Cross started serving school food as more shipments came in. Local businesses like Noa Noa Sports Bar cooked up the remaining food in their temporarily useless freezers and gave it away for free.
That attitude of giving everything they had was not limited to businesses: Volunteers at the shelter were in awe of the families who arrived. Most of them insisted on helping the Red Cross volunteers, toting in supplies or pitching in with cleanup.
“They want to do things. They actually want to pay us. They bless us,” said Kelly Capolino, 55, a Naples Realtor who has volunteered for the Red Cross for a decade and elected to spend the storm at the shelter, rather than at a hurricane party.
“There’s not a house on the beach in Naples that’s worth one of those smiles, one of those thankful faces,” Capolino said.
Among those faces was Juanita Castaneda, 42, a housekeeper who arrived at the shelter with 19 other family members: her two sisters, her brother and their 16 kids. The clan arrived late Tuesday night, hot, hungry and desperate after three days without electricity.
By Wednesday afternoon, Castaneda was beaming as she announced that power had been restored to her house.
“I just want to say ‘Thank you very much for letting us stay here,’ ” Castaneda announced to the staff as the volunteers broke into applause.
“We got here so late, and there’s 20 of us, but they could not have been nicer,” Castaneda said of the reception. “The hurricane was bad, but these people were awfully nice.”
The city provides a huge portion of the tomatoes that Americans eat in the winter. Those fields provide low-paying jobs to thousands of agricultural workers who pack entire families into trailers so insecure that they say they can’t even apply for homeowner’s insurance. They eke out a meager existence, with grown children living at home to help their parents support younger siblings.
Roger Constant, 37, is an office assistant and safety coordinator for Gargiulo, one of those tomato producers. He grew up in Immokalee and lived through Wilma and Charley, but said neither packed Irma’s punch. He said the storm destroyed the 200 acres of seedlings that had been planted so far this season. Picking and packing usually takes place in mid-October.
“That’s going to delay a lot of our seasonal workers,” Constant said. “They may have to wait weeks or a month to get back to work.”
Those are the people who need work the most. In Eden Park, a neighborhood full of trailer homes, one trailer looked like Irma had literally punched a fist through the roof. Ceiling rafters hung on kitchen counters, the fridge leaned on empty air instead of a wall and the front door hung loosely from its frame, opening and closing repeatedly in the wind. Plywood that had been nailed over the windows in anticipation of Irma sat useless on the ground, ripped off along with the rest of the walls. One of the few items standing: a foot-tall Virgin Mary statue.
The Flores family — mom Eustolia and her four children — lived in the trailer but had evacuated to Jacksonville on Friday. On Wednesday they were back, living for now with their next-door neighbor whose trailer at least had four walls and a roof.
Irma took a chunk out of Anita Martinez’s trailer, but she considers herself fortunate. She and her husband patched the hole in the trailer with a blue tarp and invited the now-homeless family to stay with them.
“They can stay with us for as long as they want,” said Martinez, 52, who works in the fields. “We don’t have a lot, but whatever we can, we will do. It’s like my mom says, ‘where one can eat, all can eat.’ ”
Still, Martinez, who like Flores and her eldest son, Nicanor, earns between $30 to $40 per day working in the fields, is worried about the future. Irma flooded fields and groves in the agricultural rich community and work might be hard to find.
“I just hope and pray that as soon as we can, we can get back to the fields,” she said.
Martinez’s trailer doesn’t have electricity, but she was able to convince a crew working on the water lines to come by and fix a busted pipe. They don’t even want to go to the shelter because they worry if they do that looters, who already tried to steal an air conditioner from the wrecked trailer, would return. Martinez’s husband and Nicanor Flores slept outside Tuesday night to keep them away.
“If we leave for the high school,” Martinez said, “people will try to steal what little we have left.”