Immokalee Faces Long Recovery Road Ahead
Our visit Thursday revealed many helping hands, but much more to be done.
A destroyed trailer in Immokalee
Photos by Jennifer Reed
Immokaleeans ran out of food. That’s been one of the biggest challenges facing this little community of mostly immigrant workers in the last few days.
Rosa Garcia and her sons at the Guadalupe Center
Such is the assessment of Christie Betancourt, a lifelong resident who also works for the county’s community redevelopment agency and has a good pulse on the goings on about town.
“Food, ice, water. A lot of people have to take insulin. That’s been hard,” she says. The wind-up to Irma was so long, the area is so isolated, and residents are so limited on how much they can spend to stock their homes, that replenishing pantries and coolers has meant a communal pooling of resources.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and Betancourt is cooling off and enjoying a plate of pasta at Immokalee Community School, a charter school run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.
Relief had started pouring in that morning. RCMA had its cafeteria up and running and its kitchen staff going full throttle. The air conditioning offered relief for expectant moms and little kids and anyone else sick of the heat. Outside, other staff members and volunteers handed out water and emergency meal packets.
Social service organizations, both those deeply entrenched in the community as well as those from out of town, began assessing damage and figuring out how to help.
Rosa Garcia took this photo of her sons' bedroom in her trailer.
Sandra Hemstead, a Naples resident and the district governor-elect for the Rotary International district that stretches from Bradenton to Marco to Clewiston to Fort Myers, arrived Thursday morning to tour the region with fellow Rotarian Dorin Oxender, also the director of the Immokalee Technical College. They were joined by Meals of Hope President Stephen Popper, who would set up a feeding site the next day, and Team Rubicon, an organization that taps the skills of volunteer veterans to help provide disaster relief. This team was based out of Atlanta. (Residents can call its Crisis Cleanup Hotline, 800-451-1954, for free assessment and assistance in repairing their homes and properties.)
“We’re not the first-line emergency responders,” says Hemstead of Rotary, whose organization has some 1.2 million people worldwide who are being tapped for financial and other support, “but we will come in behind and help with short-term, medium-term and long-term needs. We’ll listen to what the community wants.”
Dawn Montecalvo, the Guadalupe Center president, and her team fired up a generator, opened up the early learning center and started phoning staff. The organization serves a total of 1,300 children through its early learning program, after-school academic help and a Tutor Corps program that employs area teens. The staff, full-time and part-time, consists of about 230 people.
A volunteer stacks ready-to-eat meals at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
“Our Lehigh teachers are not good,” Montecalvo says. That east Lee County community flooded badly. Another staff member, in Everglades City, saw 8 feet of water gush into her two-story house. Montecalvo insisted on putting her up in a hotel. Another, an Immokalee resident, lost her trailer.
The school itself was mostly in good shape—minus a spot on the roof that needed a tarp—but it can’t reopen until the power is restored. Department of Health rules.
Nearby, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (which is not affiliated with Montecalvo’s Guadalupe Center), Catholic Charities staff and volunteers were manning a massive relief effort.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” says program coordinator Peggy Rodriguez. The building in which she was stationed was full—floor-to-ceiling in some parts—with ready-to-eat meals, delivered Wednesday night from FEMA and other disaster recovery organizations. Outside, a mountain of bottled water stood ready for residents, who had been streaming onto the church grounds since early morning.
Peggy Rodriguez at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
“Water was a big relief for them,” Rodriguez says. They served their thousandth person around 1 p.m. on Thursday and planned to continue the efforts this morning.
In spite of the help, in spite of the goodwill, recovery promises to be a long road. Although the supply of apartments and single-family homes has grown exponentially (and those places fared well), Hurricane Irma provided yet another reminder of Immokalee’s poverty, of the substandard trailers, of the landlords who charge by the head and then turn their heads when the winds pick up.
Rosa Garcia is at work in the kitchen at the Guadalupe Center on Thursday morning. Her two young sons and a nephew have joined her. She’s the employee who lost her trailer—who lost near everything—in Irma’s wrath. Her family had sheltered at Guadalupe’s early childhood education center, playing puppets and building block towers in a classrooms to keep the children entertained.
“Monday morning, my husband and sister went to check,” Garcia says. “He came back and told me, ‘The trailer is gone.’”
The home had belonged to her father, who had let Garcia and her sister live there free of charge. Garcia had raised her sons, Jayce, 3, and Ryan, 6, in it.
“We can restore again, but it’s hard. It’s hard,” she says. She’s staying with in-laws until she and her husband, a construction worker, can figure out what to do. That’s hard, too, she says—trying to merge two families with two different routines under one roof.
“(The trailer) is standing, but there’s no roof. I think if you go push the walls, they will just fall,” she says. She’s been told rents are averaging $800 or more per month—an exorbitant amount for a family of limited means and one that does not rely on government assistance. In her office down the hall, Montecalvo is trying to find information on the family's behalf.
On this morning, her boys are grinning, playful, and Ryan is happy to relate the story of the hurricane—about seeing the trees rock dangerously, about their overnight stay at Guadalupe Center, about the tornado that he heard followed the hurricane.
But their mother says the loss has been hard on the boys, who shared bunk beds in what Ryan called their “cozy little bedroom.”
“They keep asking, ‘When are we gonna get our house back?'” she says.