When Hurricane Idalia struck last week, Michael Burnett’s bayside home in Crystal River, Fla., was inundated with a noxious cocktail of stormwater and sewage from burst pipes that rose to his chest.
“We lost everything we owned,” said Burnett, manager of a gun shop. “All my kids’ clothes, all my guitars, all my guns, everything I have collected is gone.”
He added: “The only saving grace was those guys who came to my house.”
The “guys” are four men in the country illegally that he had hired to help sort through the muck, members of an immigrant workforce that in recent years has helped communities in Florida and other states clean up and rebuild after climate disasters, with thousands of such workers rushing in.
But as this year’s hurricane season intensifies, they may be in shorter supply in Florida.
In May, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law to discourage immigrants without legal status from living and working in the state. The law, which he has described as the country’s most aggressive crackdown, rejects out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to immigrants who entered the country illegally, makes it a felony to transport such immigrants into Florida, and punishes companies that hire them.
“There’s a lot of work, but we can’t risk being deported,” said Maria, a Honduran immigrant in Louisiana who worked in Florida after Hurricane Ian last year but said she would forgo traveling there to help with storm cleanup from now on. “We’re staying put.”
Like other immigrants interviewed for this article, she asked to be identified only by her first name out of concern for her family’s safety.
After the Florida Legislature passed the measure, but even before it took effect on July 1, Maria and other immigrants said they had been harassed by police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the state. Now, they expressed fear that law enforcement would arrest them and turn them over to federal authorities for detention and deportation. The office of DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about questions over law enforcement or on the impact of immigrants’ decisions on hurricane recovery.
Carlos, a worker without legal status who lives in Texas and drives with a license from Maryland, said he usually assembles a crew that clears debris in Florida after hurricanes and then does repairs, installing doors, windows, and flooring.
They worked nonstop for seven months in Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian, he said, as one satisfied client after another recommended his crew to friends. But when the Legislature passed the immigration law, he said, they left Florida as quickly as possible.
Although Idalia flooded hundreds of homes and businesses from the Tampa Bay area through Florida’s Big Bend region, “we absolutely will not go” help with recovery, Carlos said from Houston, where he has lived for 13 of his 20 years in the United States.
“Imagine being arrested and deported doing work that really helps people,” he said. “We have families.”
Though it is impossible to know for certain how many immigrants without legal status are staying away, more than half of 1,000 who were informally polled this summer by Resilience Force, a nonprofit group that organizes disaster recovery workers and offers them safety training, said they did not plan to return to Florida this hurricane season because of the law.
“Floridians will need thousands of skilled disaster recovery workers to rebuild their homes after Idalia, but they may not get them,” said Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force.
“These workers are overwhelmingly immigrants,” he said.
Hurricane Idalia came ashore Aug. 30 on Florida’s Gulf Coast, packing winds of 125 mph that ripped roofs off houses, downed power lines, and toppled trees. Surging stormwater and torrential rain flooded low-lying places such as Crystal River, about 80 miles north of Tampa.
The sheer amount of water overwhelmed the city’s sewer system. The pressure was such that, in the Burnett home, water shot out of a toilet like a geyser, puncturing the ceiling and flooding every room. Burnett, 43, and the family dog, Layla, were trapped inside, the putrid water 6 feet high by the time firefighters with an airboat rescued them.
When Kelly Burnett, 37, returned to the house with her children, the family’s belongings had been reduced to a “sopping wet mess of crap,” she recalled.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “We were literally at a loss.”
Michael Burnett has eczema that is exacerbated by prolonged exposure to bacteria. The couples’ elderly parents could not help.
During a visit to Home Depot to buy supplies, he spotted some Latino men holding up a sign that read, “Demolition, restoration and hauling.”
Burnett enlisted their help, and before he was even back home, the men had pulled up at his turquoise house. The workers picked through heaps of toys, clothes, and other items, as well as through soggy, crumbling boxes for four days, making a total of $500 per day.
“If they found something in the pile that they thought was sentimental, they brought it to us,” said Kelly Burnett — such as a photograph of her as a little girl.
Michael Burnett, who gave the men an extra $500 on their last day working for him, said: “If these people are willing to do this, making a little bit of money helping people they don’t know, they should have the world.”