On Monday afternoon, when Tirso Moreno reached Immokalee, Florida, after Hurricane Wilma had blasted across this southern community of poor migrant farm workers, he summed up what he saw in one grim sentence.
"Immokalee is destroyed," said Moreno, executive director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, a local organization with which Oxfam America partners.
With winds lashing the rural agricultural region at up to 110 miles per hour, Wilma caused extensive damage to the substandard housing in which many farm workers live. For many who are unable to afford anything better, home is often just a flimsy trailer-sometimes with as many as 12 men crowded inside.
Though Moreno did not have time to complete a full assessment, he reported that property damage in the area appeared to be extensive, including to the association's satellite office. The storm blew off half its roof, causing the ceiling to collapse and soaking the interior with rain.
In addition to causing structural devastation, the hurricane may have harmed the job prospects of countless farm workers. Oranges and tomatoes are two of the main crops grown in the region, and the tomato harvest was just getting under way, said Moreno. He fears that the storm may have caused extensive crop damage.
And since many of the farm workers in Immokalee and the surrounding areas of More Heaven and Belle Glade are undocumented immigrants, Moreno is also concerned that their access to relief assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be limited.
Already many of the workers in the area earn wages that keep them well below the poverty line, and they have few independent resources on which to fall back.
Pickers typically average between $7,500 and $10,000 a year and do not receive benefits such as overtime pay, health insurance, or paid vacations.
While Moreno planned to continue his assessment of local needs today, the Associated Press reported that in one public housing complex where more than 600 farm workers live, Wilma had swamped the parking lot with waist-deep water, partially drowning residents' cars and making it impossible for them to leave in search of food.
Alpha Hits Haiti
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Alpha-the record-breaking 22nd tropical storm of the Atlantic season-pummeled parts of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with up to 15 inches of rain. The news service said the downpours led to the deaths of 11 people in Haiti.
The storm has forced the closing of the main road between Port au Prince and Hinche. It also caused La Quinte, a river in the city of Gonaives, to flood three neighborhoods. An Oxfam assessment team sent to the region yesterday reported that water in the houses in one neighborhood, Ka Soleil, had reached nearly a foot in height. Officials have closed all the schools in the area for the week.
A little more than a year ago, Gonaives suffered from extensive flooding when tropical storm Jeanne hit the city, reportedly taking the lives of about 3,000 residents in the area. At that time, Oxfam rushed emergency relief into the region and some of the reconstruction work it undertook has now been flooded again, including latrines at four schools.