Fla. Farmworkers Awaiting Aid After Wilma Damage

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By Laura Wides-Munoz
Associated Press
Sunday, November 27, 2005

PAHOKEE, Fla., Nov. 26 -- Ernesto and Carmen Vasquez are staying home for the holidays this year despite the SUV-size hole in their living-room ceiling -- a calling card left by Hurricane Wilma -- and the red "X" on their door marking the mobile home as condemned.

It has been one month since Wilma struck their Everglades mobile home park in western Palm Beach County, flattening many of their neighbors' homes, but the couple have yet to be visited by aid workers or local officials. Shelters here are scarce, so they plan to remain in their two-bedroom trailer with their two children -- if the rest of the roof does not cave in.

"We still have a house, so I suppose we are among the lucky ones," Carmen Vasquez said.

They are among thousands of Florida's uninsured farmworkers still awaiting help since Wilma thrashed South Florida on Oct. 24, in the nation's worst hurricane season on record. Wilma killed 35 people in the state, destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes, and caused widespread power outages across South Florida.

Farmworker advocates say Wilma has underscored a larger problem: the state's failure to respond to the needs of the mostly Mexican and Central American workers who have reshaped Florida's agricultural communities, replacing many of the native black and Jamaican workers who once dominated the sector.

Vasquez, who emigrated more than 20 years ago from Sinaloa, Mexico, is better off than many neighbors. She and her husband, Ernesto, who transports cut sugar cane, are permanent residents. They registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency days after the storm. But in front of their home, a trailer housing nine illegal immigrants was mostly destroyed by Wilma and those men were afraid to tell authorities for fear of being deported, she said.

Local and state officials are unprepared to deal with people who speak Spanish.

In Miami, about 80 miles to the southeast, it is often assumed that residents speak Spanish. But in this Palm Beach County region on Lake Okeechobee, and in many parts of central and northern Florida, few public officials or staff speak Spanish.

Vasquez, who speaks little English, and half a dozen other farmworker wives recently attended a regional meeting to discuss hurricane recovery issues for the area's most vulnerable.

Public officials expressed surprise that many of the women did not know how to register with FEMA or about plans to build a low-income housing complex.

However, the officials had made little effort to spread the information in Spanish and did not hire a translator for the meeting. The official running the session complained that informal translations were slowing the meeting.

"We need to improve communication with Hispanics," Pahokee City Manager Lillie Latimore said after the meeting. "I could tell we're missing them."

Palm Beach County is home to an estimated 190,000 Hispanics, up from about 140,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. That is about 15 percent of the county's population.

"The language can cause big problems for those most in need even if they are here legally," said Francisco Garza, an organizer with the Farmworker Association of Florida, an advocacy group that claims more than 6,000 members.

Gov. Jeb Bush has pushed for farmworker housing that can withstand Florida's repeated storms.

"We can't keep replacing substandard housing with substandard housing," he said Monday during a news conference in Coral Gables.

A new Joint Legislative Commission on Migrant and Seasonal Labor will look at housing solutions among other issues.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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