Hurricane Irma adds extra challenge to immigrants in Florida

Many of the areas devastated by Hurricane Irma have large immigrant populations. For those living in the United States without permission, seeking refuge at official shelters could have serious consequences.

Sister Ann Kendrick moved to Florida 46 years ago to offer support to the immigrant farm worker community. She has since co-founded the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, Orange County, where she continues to work with the now mostly Latino local community - many of whom arrived in the United States illegally. She spoke to DW about how Hurricane Irma's arrival in Florida  proved to be extra challenging for these "undocumented" immigrants.

DW: How badly has your area been affected by Hurricane Irma?

Sister Ann Kendrick: Badly. There are a lot of trees in central Florida, and that's the danger. They go over on houses and they go over on electrical lines, and on mobile homes - especially the older ones that weren't built with adequate reinforcements. There was a mandatory evacuation of all the mobile homes in Orange County. We dodged a bullet though. It was terrible, but it wasn't as bad as expected in some ways.

How has the local community that you work with reacted?

Nature and Environment | 07.09.2017

In the immigrant community people are just hard workers. The howling of the wind yesterday gave way to another sound, which was the chainsaws. A lot of these people are landscapers, yard guys, the people who go in to fix up your manicured garden - and they have equipment. So they were out helping people. Almost before the last cloud and raindrop and gust of wind were gone, people were working to rebuild, to repair. It's beautiful, the resiliency!

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Last week, the Sheriff of neighboring Polk County suggested that people would have to provide identification at hurricane shelters - apparently to prevent "sex offenders and predators" entering. Was this also alarming for undocumented residents who were preparing to evacuate their homes?

It's not unexpected. This is a pretty racist place. People aren't dancing around in their cone-hat outfits, but the attitudes haven't changed that much. All these people do is they cloak whatever restrictive law they want to have with "it's a security issue" - that gives you cover to exclude and threaten people.

A lot of our staff went around telling people go to the shelter. I was there most of the day, because I'm pretty well known in the immigrant community, to say "you can trust these people”. They just asked your name, you didn't have to show any ID.

Sister Ann Kendrick

Sister Ann Kendrick founded the Office for Farmworker Ministry with three other Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

Were people worried that they might be asked for identification?

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People were worried just because first responders were also visible around these places, there were police cars. This is a crowd that lives with fear every second. They're afraid just getting in a car, because it means they're driving without a license. Since 9/11 [when the federal government introduced heightened security measures for state-issued identification cards] they can't renew their license.

Everything is a threat. They get in the car and the driver looks ahead and the kids sit in the back and look out of the back window to alert them in case they are being followed by police. They're targeted. The police department says that there's never any racial profiling, and I wouldn't say all officers do it, but yeah there's a few in our town who I'm sure trawl for Mexican-looking people, Latino-looking people.

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So do you think some people in your area avoided seeking refuge from the hurricane at an official shelter because they were worried about the legal consequences?

I think people's first preference was if they had family members or friends who had a more stable house, they went there. One of our staff members had 15 people in her house - plus four dogs and five doves in cages! They weren't sure how it would be in the shelter, if they would be with people they could talk to, if people would be accepting. So they were afraid, but they were together. They shared their immigrant stories and their stories of living in this country. They ate. And they were a community.

But that happened also in the shelter. People bonded with each other, they knew each other's story. I mean, they had 48 hours in there. Our shelter was full by 5 or 6 pm the night before and the whole next day. And the shelter didn't have beds or cots - it was just the gym floor. You had to bring everything, either a blow-up mattress or a quilt, or you just slept right on the floor. We got them three meals a day, but there were no bathing facilities. The night the storm hit, the generator kept the lights on but it didn't keep the air conditioning going, so it got very hot, because it was in a gym with no ventilation.


Strongest-ever Atlantic storm

Hurricane Irma has killed dozens of people and injured many more since the record-breaking storm roared over the French Caribbean islands. With its powerful winds having topped 185 miles (295 kilometers) per hour, Irma is the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US National Hurricane Center based in Miami.


Saint Martin: Death and destruction

The Franco-Dutch island of Saint Martin suffered the full fury of the storm. Rescuers on the French side said at least eight people died and some 95 percent of homes were destroyed. The Netherlands and France both sent troops and medics to help with rescue efforts.


Barbuda: 'Total carnage'

Prime Minister Gaston Browne said Barbuda was a "scene of total carnage." Officials on the tiny two-island nation said it will seek international assistance. He further reported that about half of Barbuda's 1,800 population were homeless while nine out of 10 buildings had suffered damage, many of them destroyed.


Puerto Rico: Without power, homes

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said about two-thirds of the island's 3.4 million inhabitants lost electricity in the storm. Shelters have been set up for about 62,000 people whose homes were destroyed.


Cuba: Devastation, once again

Irma crawled across Cuba's northern coast, bearing down on the island nation as a Category 5 hurricane. It left thousands of homes, businesses and hotels flooded. The hurricane's storm surge topped Malecon, the iconic seaside boulevard in the capital of Havana. Cuba is often hit by hurricanes that strike the Caribbean.


Florida: Catastrophic winds

Irma made US landfall in Key West, then again on Marcos Island on the US state of Florida's Gulf Coast. The storm brought several tornadoes, which leveled homes in the eastern city of Palm Bay. In Miami, hurricane-force winds brought down two cranes. State authorities have vowed a swift response to aid victims of the hurricane and cleanup its devastation.


Georgia and South Carolina: Irma downgraded to tropical depression

Although Georgia and South Carolina avoided the worst of Irma's destructive path, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency after 340,000 were left without electricity and four people died. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one the world's busiest airports, was forced to cancel some 800 flights on Monday.


Wildlife: Another victim

The destructive storm also left other victims in its wake, namely marine wildlife. The hurricane caused water levels to rise and fall much quicker than normal, leaving some animals, like this manatee, behind to die on land.


Irregular hurricane season

Irma follows hot on the heels of Hurricane Harvey which devastated large swathes of Texas and Louisiana in late August. Before Irma made landfall in the US, two other storms, Jose in the Atlantic Ocean and Katia in the Gulf of Mexico, were upgraded to hurricane status. Weather forecasters believe Jose could still pose a threat to the continental US.

Aside from seeking safety at shelters, do you think these people will also be less likely to seek other forms of help, such as potential medical aid or disaster relief funding?

I think they will not be inclined to apply for any disaster relief funding. But a lot of the families that I know, they're all out today working in people's yards, trying to make some money now.

You've been in the area for nearly 50 years. What does the immigrant community look like?

Back in 1971, before Disney World became the premier place in central Florida, before it was in the shadow of Cinderella's castle, we worked with migrant farm workers - the people who came into the state to pick the oranges. We reached out to the migrant labor force, which back then was about 60 or 70 percent African American, but increasingly became more Latino. These same communities are now mostly doing other work. They're working in the low-end of the construction industry, a lot of people work in horticulture or the tourist industry - hotels, motels, cleaning people's houses. There's just a lot of employment. It's not necessarily high-end or well-paid, but there are job opportunities.

What sort of proportion of this community is undocumented?

It's difficult to say, but it's a lot. Since the election last November, they're terrified - people who have been here a long time and lived under the radar.

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Last week the Trump administration announced that the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program, which granted temporary protection to certain groups of immigrants who arrived in the US as minors, will be rescinded. How will this affect the families that you know?

The removal of DACA has been a terrible blow. Those kids are the only ones in many households who can legally work and who can get a driver's license. And so they have been able to get better jobs, because they can now work in places that give a bit more scrutiny to people's identification and the documents that they need in order to legally work in this country. And they can drive - so they're driving everyone. They're sort of the adults in the family.

But this crowd is resilient. They've been through a lot.  These people still believe in community - and knowing each other and helping each other. It's the same thing about the issue with papers: the people with documents are suffering together with the people that don't have them. It's a beautiful empathy and solidarity.