Migrant workers following climate disasters

Bellaliz Gonzalez had never heard of Midland, Michigan before a white van dropped him off at the end of May 2020. The ride from his home in Miami, with twelve colleagues, had taken about twenty-two hours. She arrived in an area devastated by a recent flood: cracked roads, collapsed bridges. Gonzalez, a 54-year-old asylum seeker from Venezuela with well-groomed auburn hair, prided herself on remaining calm in dangerous situations. In Venezuela, she had worked as an environmental engineer and managed several national parks in the country. But for the past three years, living in the United States, she had turned to manual labor to earn money. Earlier that week, she had been recruited to work with a franchise of a disaster restoration company called Servpro, to help Midland recover. She was carrying her travel bag, which contained steel-toed boots, chunky jeans, and gold hoops that helped her feel stylish while doing backbreaking work. At the site, she received a fluorescent yellow vest with the name of Servpro on the back and the words “Safety begins with you”.

Gonzalez and his colleagues had rushed to Midland after a torrential downpour – the effects of Tropical Storm Arthur – erupted through two hydroelectric dams. Governor Gretchen Whitmer described the damage as “unlike anything we’ve seen in five hundred years.” Eighteen inches of water flooded the local courthouse; vehicles from a nearby vintage car museum slipped face down from the destroyed showroom. Whitmer said restoring the area would be a “Herculean undertaking”. Some twenty-five hundred buildings were in need of repair. Conditions at a city hospital, MidMichigan Medical Center-Midland, were especially urgent, given the outbreak of the pandemic, where one of the intensive care units lost power.

Gonzalez is part of a new transitional workforce, made up largely of immigrants, many undocumented, who follow climate disasters across the country in the same way that agricultural workers follow crops, helping communities to rebuild. She had dealt with damage from hurricanes, fires, floods and tornadoes in seven states, cleaning up mold blooms and cleaning toxic sludge puddles from universities, factories and airports. The work seemed meaningful and at times made her feel like a lucky tourist: sometimes she remained in the mess of seaside resorts that she couldn’t otherwise afford. But it was also risky. In 2019, in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Michael, she gutted the insulation of a house without proper protective gear and felt small pieces of fiberglass cut through her skin. The same year, the day after Hurricane Florence, she participated in the demolition of a serpentarium in North Carolina; the former owner, an eccentric herpetologist, had been murdered by his wife in the adjoining apartment. On the walls of the exhibitions, signs had warned visitors of the effects of the snake venom: “The bitten end swells to massive proportions. . . and your eyes cry blood. Now the threat was the smelly dust raised by the demolition, which left her coughing and wheezing.

Gonzalez and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Angelica, lived in Florida with Gonzalez’s sister, Enilsa. For months, Enilsa begged her to stop chasing disasters, and after the pandemic started, she found a job at a McDonald’s. But the work was tedious and poorly paid. Gonzalez and his daughter slept on twin sofas in Enilsa’s living room. Angelica, a high school student and aspiring graphic designer, was hoping to go to college, but Gonzalez wasn’t sure she could afford it. In May 2020, working through the night, Gonzalez burned his forearm while baking apple pies and took it as a sign. Shortly after, she saw a WhatsApp message from a group of Venezuelan storm workers noting a job offer from a small, Houston-based disaster recovery work broker called Back to New who provided ” on-demand workers, across the country, 24/7. “She had a contract with a Servpro franchise and made an urgent appeal to workers. The opportunity, the company promised, was “COVID-19 ready.

Back to New sent over a hundred workers to Midland from Florida and Texas, most of them Venezuelans. Many were experienced disaster workers, but some had recently been pushed to work by pandemic debt. Leyda Yanes, a former lawyer from Caracas, had worked at a bakery in Miami until it closed during shutdowns. She had seen a Back to New ad and persuaded her husband, Jesús Delgado, an Uber driver, and their extended family to travel to Midland. Workers told me they had not been tested for covid or forced to wear a mask. Gonzalez was wearing one, and in the van a young woman scolded her, “Don’t you know you’re breathing your own air in this thing?” You will cause permanent damage to the lungs.

In Midland, the group found conditions that were far from “”COVID-19 ready. They were taken to a local hotel, where they were told they would sleep four per room, two per bed. Gonzalez and others would clean up floodwater and damaged property from Midland Hospital, including its mortuary. Workers said daily meetings were held indoors and crowded, as was the group’s work area; they received inadequate protective equipment which quickly ran out. (Back to New denied any wrongdoing during the project.) At the end of Gonzalez’s shift, she and Yanes were scouring the floor for discarded latex gloves to wash and reuse. Reinaldo Quintero, a broad-shouldered worker from Maracaibo, the town where Gonzalez grew up, belted gaita music, a regional genre, and recruited Delgado to sing.

Still, Gonzalez couldn’t let go of his worries. She asked a supervisor why they didn’t have the temperature controls they were guaranteed to have. “The thermometer is broken,” replied the woman, shrugging her shoulders. One day, around 6 A M, Gonzalez and other workers boarded vans bound for the hospital. “Where’s Reinaldo?” Delgado asked. Someone replied, “He’s not feeling well. Gonzalez’s bedmate was also ill. “Maybe it’s just the changing weather?” Gonzalez suggested. She soon learned that Quintero had been tested for COVID-19. Later, she had a severe headache.

Caricature by Roz Chast

On Saturday night, Gonzalez and several other workers decided to call Saket Soni, an organizer Gonzalez had met a few years earlier. Soni runs a nonprofit called Resilience Force that advocates for the rapidly growing group of disaster recovery workers. As workers follow storms, the organization follows them, trying to tackle wage theft, avoid injuries, and generally prevent the types of disasters – in disasters – that plague the industry. . Soni is forty-three, dark hair and owl glasses, and an air of intense curiosity. That night, he was in his apartment in Washington, DC, cooking an elaborate meal of octopus vindaloo. When he answered the phone, a group of workers shouted on the other end of the line. Then Gonzalez came on the line. – Saket, this is bad, she said. “I think we are contaminated. “

The apocalyptic weather caused many Americans to belatedly recognize the climate emergency. Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest rose to over 110 degrees in June, killing more than two hundred people. In the southwest, a “mega-drought” brought water levels down to a record level of a millennium. Last summer, Hurricane Ida sent biblical rains to the roofs of homes on the Gulf Coast, then pushed north, killing at least eleven people in flooded basement apartments in New York City. But, even as awareness grows about what President Joe Biden calls our extreme “code red” weather threat, most Americans know little about the job crisis lurking there.

The work of disaster recovery has always been exhausting. When the deadliest storm in U.S. history hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900, as Al Roker describes in his book “The Storm of the Century,” “the white soldiers forced black men under the sea. threat of a weapon any city could ever face, ”which included loading hundreds of dead bodies onto a barge to be dumped at sea. After the Great Hurricane Okeechobee hit South Florida in 1928 , three-quarters of those killed were migrant farm workers, mostly black. Local authorities enlisted the survivors to bury the dead in mass graves – pine coffins were mostly reserved for white victims – and, when some refused, they were refused food or were shot.

Today, the structure of the industry has changed dramatically. For much of the twentieth century, many disaster recovery businesses were family owned shops; for the most part they earned modest incomes repairing mostly modest problems (a house set on fire by a stray cigarette, a blown fireplace in a storm) and sometimes received bargains when a disproportionate disaster struck. The work was carried out mainly by local workers. In recent years, however, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have made extreme weather events more frequent and intense. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted a new US record in 2020: a total of twenty-two “billion dollar disasters.” Insurance companies paid at least seventy-six billion dollars for repairs that year, and the government paid over one hundred billion. “We will spare no expense,” Biden told the Federal Emergency Management Agency last May, announcing he would double his funds to prepare for extreme weather conditions.

As the money poured in, businesses consolidated and began to chase extreme weather conditions across the country, competing for insurance payments and government contracts. Quality Awning & Construction was founded in 1946 in Dearborn, Michigan, to handle minor repair jobs in the city. By 1989, the company had changed its name and the brothers who ran it began sending caravans of workers in storms to other states. In 2001, the company was sold for an estimated two hundred million dollars to Belfor USA Group, an emerging industry heavyweight then led by Mark Davis and Jeff Johnson. Today, the company achieves more than two billion dollars in sales per year. As Forbes In other words, “climate change is good for Belfor”. Likewise, Servpro was founded as a family-owned paint company in 1967 and now has nineteen hundred branches in the United States and Canada.

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