They arrived by the hundreds last year after Hurricane Michael sliced through the Florida Panhandle, packing 160-mile-per-hour winds that snapped pine trees in half, mangled steel posts, ripped off roofs and upended people’s lives. Without electricity, potable water or reliable accommodation, a rapid-response labor force got to work carting away the wreckage.
In the ensuing months, the workers — nearly all of them from Central America, Mexico and Venezuela — toiled day and night across Bay County to reopen Panama City’s City Hall, repair the local campus of Florida State University and fix damaged roofs on several churches. In towns like Callaway, which saw 90 percent of its housing stock damaged by the Category 5 storm last October, they are still working.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.2 million Americans live in coastal areas at risk of significant damage from hurricanes. The increased frequency and severity of such disasters have given rise to a new recovery-and-reconstruction work force.
It is overwhelmingly made up of immigrants.
Like the migrant farmworkers of yesteryear who followed the crops, the hurricane workers move from disaster to disaster. They descended on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Houston after Harvey; North Carolina after Florence; Florida after Irma and Michael. And as the United States confronts more extreme weather caused by climate change, theirs has become a growth industry.
Lorenzo, a 67-year-old from Mexico, is adept at elevating and moving houses to higher ground, and keeps pictures on his cellphone to prove it — mansions he rescued in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston.
Marcelo, 44, specializes in siding. “In a week here I can earn what I make in a month in Brazil,” he said in the 95-degree heat as he installed a gray facade on a one-story house in Callaway.
Many of the hurricane workers are undocumented immigrants who entered illegally across the southwestern border. Others are asylum seekers, fleeing persecution in their home countries, or tourists who were supposed to remain in the country for only a few months. Many said they came because they knew the work was plentiful and promised to pay well.
But since arriving in Bay County during the chaotic weeks after Hurricane Michael, many of the immigrant workers have been exploited by employers who do not always pay what they are owed, or landlords who charge exorbitant rent for their temporary quarters. In this relatively conservative corner of the country, some have been stopped by sheriff’s deputies and transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Bellaliz Gonzalez, a Venezuelan plaintiff who entered the United States on a tourist visa, said in an interview that her boss threatened to turn her and other workers over to immigration authorities when they complained that their paychecks had bounced.
“I felt powerless. They were abusing immigrants who came to work honorably,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 53, who estimates that she is owed $2,000 and has since applied for asylum.
This has been going on since the three 2005 hurricanes that caused so much damage along the Gulf Coast, most notably Katrina. Trump says “they aren’t sending their best” when in fact they are, with people migrating to do the hardest, most necessary work in this nation. Who isn’t the best is the evil employers and fascists at ICE who want them as close to slavery as possible, with deportation the response for such crazy demands as getting paid.