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These Changes Could Help Address How Immigrant Farmworkers Are Overlooked In Natural Disasters

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Juvencio Rocha Peralta, executive director of AMEXCAN, points to a map of farms in the eastern North Carolina area using H-2A workers. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

During the course of reporting for this project, 100 Days in Appalachia spoke with a number of local, state and national nonprofit and community organizations and climate change experts; some of them had suggestions for changes that would make immigrant farmworkers less vulnerable during and after natural disasters and other impacts linked to climate change. Below are some of those suggestions.

Planning

Counties and different state agencies in every state have disaster plans. A look at an agricultural county in eastern North Carolina’s plan as well as the state’s plan — not to mention a query to an interagency climate change task force formed post-Florence — all turned up almost no mention of the tens of thousands of immigrant farmworkers who are the backbone of the state’s $80-plus billion a year industry.

Public planning for disasters in the Southeast should remedy this oversight. “Disaster response is all about systems,” said Scott Marlow, senior policy specialist at the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization. “The problem is the systems are not well-equipped on the front end to respond to the needs of H-2A or undocumented farmworkers,” noted Marlow, who has assisted farmworkers in 18 natural disasters to date.

Private planning should also take immigrant farmworkers into account. “We should have a written plan, and a way to evaluate its effectiveness, or implementation,” said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, a group that represents growers that hire slightly less than half of the state’s H-2A farmworkers.

H-2A Farmworker Housing

In North Carolina, the Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau in the state Department of Labor inspects H-2A (and some undocumented immigrant farmworker) housing before the workers arrive every year. Inspections are based on criteria for adequate housing as provided for by the state’s Migrant Housing Act.

This law dates from 1987 but taking conditions on the ground into account has taken time: nearly 20 years passed before an amendment required immigrant farmworker housing to include “bed[s] with ‘a mattress in good repair with a clean cover,’” according to the DOL.

Further amendments that would help create safer conditions for farmworkers during and after natural disasters include: post-disaster inspections, statutory prohibition on housing with such risks to health as mold, common after flooding, and a prohibition on privies, which also pose risks to health during and after flooding.

The Act should also be revised to include “provisions on disaster evacuation and mitigation,” said Clermont Ripley, attorney at the Workers’ Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center. The plan should be posted and available in multiple languages, and there should be emergency contact and address information available to immigrant farmworkers, Ripley said.

Disaster Response

Many immigrant farmworkers in southeastern, Appalachian states are surrounded by native-born, non-Hispanic U.S. citizens. Post-natural disaster, there needs to be “cultural brokers,” or members of the same communities, who can speak the same language(s), understand cultural nuances, and so be of greater assistance to farmworkers, said Karen MacClune, executive director of ISET International, which studies climate change.

Federal Policy

The National Climate Assessment, a Congressionally-mandated, peer-reviewed report, projects increasing heat waves linked to climate change in the coming decades, particularly in the Southeast. This will affect agricultural production and threaten the safety of farmworkers. That’s why 130 organizations have petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create such standards as breaks, shade and water for workers exposed to extreme heat.

Several legal experts also pointed to HR 641, a bill introduced earlier this year and currently sitting in the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, which would give immigrant farmworkers a path to citizenship. “A lot of ways that undocumented workers are vulnerable [after a natural disaster] is because they’re scared to seek help,” said Ripley, of the North Carolina Justice Center. A path to citizenship would help address that issue.

This is the third story in Unseen, a series exploring how climate change related severe storms are impacting immigrant workers in southern Appalachia. Read more from the series here.

Unseen

As Extreme Weather Linked to Climate Change Hobbles Agriculture and Causes Billion-Dollar Damages, Immigrant Farmworkers Are Left Behind

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The land Martín Hernández rented was "beautiful in spring...and a calm place" for him and his family. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

They shouldn’t even be there, but there they are.

Beside a turnoff from a country road, in the middle of North Carolina’s tobacco country, you can’t miss the anarchic spread of Nopales, the cactus conspicuous in its spiky, stubborn survival.

Martin Hernández stands in front of them, narrating their history and that of his family’s 40-plus years in the United States, which are one and the same.

About three decades ago, one of his uncles brought a tuna, or pad, from Celaya, Guanajuato, in the center of Mexico, and stuck it in the ground. His uncle had already been coming back and forth for about 13 years to work the state’s tobacco, sweet potato and other crops.

The Hernández family enjoyed making Nopales, a Mexican dish, using the stand of cactus a family member brought from Mexico to the plot of land bordering tobacco fields where they have lived since the 1980s. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

That same uncle is now in his 60s, too old to continue crossing the border illegally; he’s back in Celaya. But over the years, dozens of family members and friends have made the small plot of land and trailer about 30 feet away from the Nopales their first stop enroute to a new life in the United States, while the cactus continued staking claim to eastern North Carolina’s rich, black soil.

Hernández arrived 12 years ago; he’s seen up to 10 people share the trailer. In recent years, it was him, his wife and her two children.

But that’s all over now.  The Nopales are all that’s left as of about 6:30 on a Friday morning last September, when Hurricane Florence ripped through the field, flipping the roof off of Hernández’s trailer and destroying most of the family’s belongings. Hernández had sent his family to stay with relatives in Maryland several days before, and stayed alone in the trailer until about 5 a.m., when the “walls started shaking …and I thought, ‘I’m going to die here.’”

The hurricane also took away much of his work, ruining crops in its wake. Now his wife and children are with family in Maryland, as Hernández holds onto a life he never imagined for himself in the United States, living off of occasional jobs and the charity of strangers.

He is ineligible for any state or federal assistance, since his name is not on ownership documents for the trailer; working only half as much as in recent years, he won’t be able to afford his family living under one roof any time soon.

“If you look at a lot of disaster assistance, it’s based on ownership of a home or business,” said Scott Marlow, senior policy director at the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization. “People without documents are going to have a much more difficult time accessing these programs.”

Hernández’s situation is not unlike the tens of thousands of undocumented farmworkers that help make North Carolina the nation’s top grower of sweet potatoes, second in Christmas trees and third in strawberries. Undocumented farmworkers and workers with temporary, H-2A visas, are also vital to agricultural industries in other Appalachian states such as Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. These farmworkers  are uniquely vulnerable and mostly overlooked during and after extreme weather events such as Hurricane Florence.

The trailer where Martín Hernández lived with his family was one of several that his family had parked in the field they rented for the last 40 years. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

Scientists say such events are linked to climate change and will likely be an increasingly common feature of life in many parts of the Southeast. From 1980 to 1990, for example, North Carolina suffered two severe storms causing more than a billion dollars in damage; since 2010, that number is already at 20, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year’s Hurricane Florence was the 9th-most economically destructive hurricane in U.S. history, according to the same agency, including an estimated $1.1 billion in crop and livestock losses alone.

Throughout the decades Hernández’s family has lived in eastern North Carolina, thousands of undocumented farmworkers have settled in the region, transforming many towns in the agricultural center of the state into Spanish-speaking hubs. Indeed, “with some towns, if it weren’t for immigrants, they would disappear entirely from the map,” said Juvencio Rocha Peralta, executive director of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN) and a North Carolina resident for nearly 40 years.

Pink Hill, where Hernández has lived all these years, is a perfect example. By 2017, according to most recent Census Bureau estimates, the town had shrunk by nearly 100 residents since 2000, to 433 total; but during that time, the number of Hispanic residents had remained about the same, now at 15.5 percent of the total population. It’s no surprise that two of the handful of restaurants in the center of town are Mexican.

New undocumented immigrant farmworkers continue to arrive in North Carolina and the state’s growers depend on increasing numbers of farmworkers with temporary, H-2A visas, mostly from the same countries as undocumented farmworkers.

Despite their importance to the regional economy, these workers remain mostly unseen when natural disasters strike.  The reason: both populations “… are valued less than crops, after disasters,” said Clermont Ripley, an attorney at the Workers’ Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center.


Lariza Garzón learned this firsthand shortly after starting her new job as executive director of Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, North Carolina, on Monday, Sept. 10. She spent her first two days at the small organization writing grants, seeking financial support to help immigrant farmworkers with services such as English classes, immigration law and disaster relief.

By Tuesday afternoon, Garzón, who had worked with farmers in Florida during Hurricane Matthew, was hearing news of an approaching category 4 storm called Florence. She started moving furniture away from the windows of her office. Within 72 hours, she began seeking trucks and trailers to help stranded farmworkers in the counties immediately to the east and southeast.

This led her to a Mexican store in Johnston County, where farmworkers overheard her and offered the phone number of a friend who was trapped in a nearby camp of about 80 farmworkers. They didn’t have access to food or water; they hadn’t been working and were low on money. It was the start of six weeks of marshalling U-Haul trucks and other vehicles that could drive through flooded areas, filling them with supplies, coordinating with other community organizations, and helping hundreds of immigrants stay alive.

“We went camp by camp,” remembers Garzón, who had spent the last decade-plus working with similar organizations in Florida and Mexico. “People had been let go, told to go back to their countries. People were upset.”

One of the community organizations Garzón linked up with after Florence was the Kinston Community Health Center, located in the town of the same name, a mile from the Neuse River and about 70 miles east of Dunn. In the weeks following the storm, Community Outreach Director Melissa Bailey Castillo received about 50 calls from farmworkers stuck in camps or mobile home parks. In addition to food and water, her clinic scrambled to get medicine for conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

Bailey Castillo said the six-county area surrounding Kinston is home about five months of the year for about 21,000 farmworkers, a slight majority of whom are undocumented. “It’s like a whole other city,” she said. Since the number of H-2A farmworkers has been growing in recent years, many of those workers are less familiar with their surroundings, an additional liability during and after a natural disaster.

Like many teenaged Hispanics in the area, Yesenia Cuello worked in tobacco fields when she was younger, before joining community organizations that help immigrant farmworkers. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

Also in Kinston, Yesenia Cuello, who as a teenager spent summers working in tobacco fields with her brother, sister and mother, mobilized the small staff where she works at NC Field, another nonprofit organization, after Florence struck the area.

Standing on the banks of the Neuse, North Carolina’s longest river, earlier this year, the 28-year-old recalled trying to help workers with temporary visas. “Their vulnerabilities include that they don’t know the low-lying areas, they don’t know where they are and they can’t leave whenever they want, since they don’t want to violate the terms of the contract they signed to get the visa,” she said.

She repeated a story reported shortly after the hurricane to illustrate how farmworkers might be hesitant to seek safety for fear of violating the terms of the H-2A visa. According to the story, a group of less than 20 men had called several nonprofit organizations in the area, saying they were trapped by floodwaters. The organizations called 911, who called the grower — Riggs Farm. The grower said everything was alright.

But it wasn’t, and the nonprofit organizations insisted until the North Carolina Growers Association , a group representing farmers that collectively hire slightly less than half of the state’s 21,000 or so H-2A farmworkers, came and took the men to a shelter in town.

Lee Wicker, the association’s director, said the story left out one important fact: the grower, who is a member, had spoken with farmworkers before the hurricane hit, and told them to closely monitor the weather and to evacuate to nearby housing on higher ground or seek public shelter if necessary.

Wicker said he didn’t know why the workers didn’t follow the grower’s instructions. At the same time, he added, “the error the grower made was not following up as soon as it became obvious that the storm was bearing down on them.”

As for undocumented farmworkers, Cuello noted, they also may face such challenges as not speaking English and a lack of familiarity with the area, depending on how long they’ve been in the U.S.

In addition, both groups of immigrants may have paid anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 or so just to arrive anywhere in the Southeast for work, whether those payments go to intermediate contractors, in the case of H-2A workers — a practice that is supposedly against the law, but that several nonprofit organizations insist occurs — or to coyotes.

This places added pressure to stay in the area and seek work, regardless of safety.

Post-Florence, Cuello also saw another issue that made rescue and recovery more difficult for undocumented farmworkers — rumors about federal immigration enforcement.

Yesenia Cuello’s organization, NC Field, was one of more than a dozen that worked to locate and help immigrant farmworkers post-Florence, going where many state and county officials were nowhere to be found. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

In the days after the Neuse River rose over its banks, a photo circulated on Facebook showing a vehicle from federal Customs and Border Patrol parked at the local Wal-Mart, Cuello recalled. This made it less likely for undocumented farmworkers and their families to venture into public areas even if they had the means, she said.

As it turns out, CBP’s Atlanta office had sent a dozen agents to the area to help with relief. But no one in the federal, state or local governments were communicating this information to immigrants.

“One of the major issues after disasters is information,” said Marlow, who to date has helped farmworkers during and after 18 natural disasters in a handful of states. “The body of information regarding the H-2A and undocumented farmworkers is completely separate from information about the rest of the population.”


Whether stopping in Mexican stores, rounding up U-Haul trucks, sloshing through water to get to camps, ordering medicine, or otherwise helping immigrant farmworkers during and after Hurricane Florence, none of the community organizations report ever running into a local, state or federal official also offering aid to this population — except for a county agricultural extension agent.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety, division of emergency management, “doesn’t have a special provision for farmworkers,” said spokesman Keith Acree. “We treat them like any other citizen — even though I realize many of them may not be natural English-speakers, or even citizens. I would hope farmers or local officials would be responsive to their particular needs,” he added.

Acree called back several days afterward to note that a task force including the state department of health and human services, county officials, and his agency, along with the Red Cross, started working on a plan several years ago to respond to disasters, and that the subject of immigrant farmworkers “came up last year.” The group, he said, is “in the early stages of figuring out … how to best care for them.”

At the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, John Howard, director of emergency programs, pointed out that “agriculture is the single-largest economic driver in our state — $80-something billion” a year, and that his agency has “a seat at the state emergency response table.”

“In a broad sense we help agriculture get on its feet” after a natural disaster, he said — “[but] if it’s saving human lives, that’s not our charge.” Instead, he pointed out, after Hurricane Florence, his office oversaw the composting of 4.2 million chickens, made sure food produced by farms was safe and helped rescue any livestock or pets on farms.  

“I don’t dispute that workers are an essential part of the agricultural community,” he added. “[But] in my world, the human side of things is typically handled by another agency.”

When it comes to immigrant farmworkers, it’s not clear what agency that is.

The Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau, within the state Department of Labor, is charged with inspecting farmworker housing that growers register with the state to ensure that it complies with North Carolina’s Migrant Housing Act.

Not all farmworkers live in housing registered with the state, with some experts estimating that as much as 30 percent of all immigrants working in agriculture live in housing that the bureau doesn’t know about. Still, mainly due to growth in the H-2A program, the number of sites registered for inspection has risen from 1,731 to 1,881 in the last three years, an increase of nine percent — while the number of inspectors has stayed the same for at least a decade, at six, said Beth Rodman, bureau chief.

The agency completes the vast majority of its inspections before farmworkers move in. The checklist used for inspections does not include mold, an issue after flooding and a possible health risk for farmworkers, and the Migrant Housing Act makes no reference to mold.

Asked if Hurricane Florence had made an impact on farmworker housing across the state, Rodman said, “We conduct inspections in the same manner, whether post-disaster or not.”

Six weeks after Hurricane Florence had swept across the state, Gov. Roy Cooper launched the North Carolina Climate Change Interagency Council. The group includes 10 state cabinet-level departments and had met three times when 100 Days in Appalachia contacted spokesman Michael Cooper to ask whether the council was thinking of including immigrant farmworkers in planning for future extreme weather events linked to climate change.

Cooper referred 100 Days in Appalachia to David Rhoades, spokesman at the state Department of Commerce. Rhoades did not reply to repeated queries.

Meanwhile, eight months after Hurricane Florence, Garzón was still trying to find housing for 68 immigrant families who had been left homeless by the storm.


Since Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, there have also been meetings on disaster response in several of the 29 counties where Juvencio Rocha Peralta operates the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina. Rocha Peralta is invited to such events as an important link to immigrant communities in the state, 18 years after founding the nonprofit organization.

But even at these meetings, he said, immigrant farmworkers are not addressed. “The state government doesn’t talk about this population, but the population in general,” said Rocha Peralta. “Organizations like ours need to participate in planning,” he added.

Juvencio Rocha Peralta helped found the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN) in 2001 lobby for a Mexican consulate in the state, when thousands of immigrants found themselves without documents following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

Similarly, Marlow, of RAFI, recalled a meeting where a state official said that they don’t always know where to find farmworkers after a disaster. “They have a tough gig and I don’t want to understate the challenges to them,” Marlow said of state agencies after a hurricane or similar event. “But unless they [immigrant farmworkers] are part of the planning [for natural disasters], they’ll be overlooked in the implementation.”

Marlow pointed to current county and state emergency or disaster response plans as evidence of how farmworkers are overlooked. On the website for Lenoir County, where Kinston is located, a 256-page “All-Hazards Emergency Operations Plan” refers to “guidance for farmers and owners of livestock on measures that can be taken [sic] to reduce losses from scenario disaster events.” The terms “immigrant” and “migrant” do not appear in the plan, but there is reference to “vulnerable populations [which] include, but are not necessarily limited to: the deaf and hard-of-hearing, non-English (mainly Spanish) speakers, and people in fragile health.”

“All planning decisions and actions to implement this plan, particularly those relating to communications and warning,” the document continues, “will be taken with appropriate consideration for identified vulnerable populations.” The plan does not specify what such “consideration” would involve.

In the state of North Carolina’s 156-page “Disaster Recovery Framework,” farmers are mentioned 13 times,  but there is no consideration given to immigrant farmworkers. The only time they are mentioned is in reference to a federal program that allows owners of certain kinds of farmworker housing to apply for grants after natural disasters.

Lee Wicker said the North Carolina Growers Association follows a procedure that includes a phone tree and text messages to all his members in the days before extreme weather events like Hurricane Florence. “I said, ‘Your number 1 priority is to make sure your employees are okay — treat them as if they were members of the family,’” he recalled.

At the same time, he allowed, “We should have a written plan, a way to evaluate its effectiveness or implementation, and penalties if it’s not followed.” The organization is currently working on detailed maps indicating where public shelters are for its growers, he added.

“Nobody has included immigrants in their planning; no one has paid attention to the impacts of natural disasters on immigrant populations,” said Rocha Peralta.

The same holds true throughout the Southeast, said Virginia Ruíz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. “Floods, hurricanes, all disasters play out in similar ways,” Ruíz said. Local and state governments, she said, “are not equipped to supply warning or outreach to remote, rural, Spanish-speaking communities.”

Rocha Peralta noted that growers have also suffered the effects of Florence and other hurricanes, and that it would be useful for both groups to make an “integrated” plan.

Wicker, of the growers association, said that most of his members hadn’t made a profit in three or so years before Hurricane Florence hit, and that the storm was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” As for extreme weather in the future, he said, “we should all be working together so we can learn from mistakes that have been made.”


But until that happens, what do you do if you’re an H-2A worker feeling the force of flooding and 75-mile-per-hour winds in a foreign country?

Or if you’re an undocumented farmworker in the same situation, maybe after spending years pulling crops out of the ground only to see all you could build for your family disappear?

Again, it’s not always clear.

What remains of the Hernández family home sits empty six months after Hurricane Florence, covered by a huge tarp. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

On an early spring day, Martín Hernández walked through the dank disorder of his former home. Tobacco had not yet been planted in the fields outside the trailer’s windows, which let in a little light to see how Hurricane Florence had ruined everything years of working for $100 a day had been able to buy.

“This was beautiful in the spring,” he said with sadness, standing in the doorway of a small room he had recently finished building for his step-daughter, about to turn 9 when Hurricane Florence hit. “The children could play outside, it was peaceful, no one messes with you…” He looked away.

Outside, sitting on the trailer’s steps in the sun, Hernández said he was holding on to the idea of somehow finding another trailer, and moving his family back in, although he allowed that would be difficult, “due to my earnings.”

He mused about the decades he spent helping bring important crops such as tobacco, sweet potato and cabbage to market. “My family has been here 40 years,” he said, “and always working in the fields — in this house and others. It’s hard work … in this country, it’s work and more work. From 7 in the morning to 7 at night, work and more work…[and] it’s a contribution you’re making. They get the benefit by selling, and we make nothing. If a hurricane arrives, it would be nice if there was some help for us Hispanics, who work in the fields.”

Since Hurricane Florence, he said, some of his friends had gone to Tennessee to work on Christmas wreaths, or to Florida to pick oranges; he didn’t know where they were now.

In the weeks after the flooding, “a lot of seasonal farmworkers who had been in the area for a decade just left,” said Bailey Castillo, of the Kinston Community Health Center. “I don’t know where they went.”

Marlow has been through 18 hurricanes with RAFI, and has seen this in states across the South. After natural disasters, he said, “Folks who are migrant disappear, no one knows if they died, or if they just left.”

Hernández was so hopeful that he could stay in the area, he had continued paying the $140 a month rent all this time on the spot of land at the end of the turnoff marked by the Nopales.

“I would like to live here again with my family,” he said. In the end, he admitted, maybe his hopes won’t pan out. Maybe he won’t be able to stay. “Maybe I’ll just go back to my country.”

This is the first story in Unseen, a series exploring how climate change related severe storms are impacting immigrant workers in southern Appalachia. Read more from the series here.

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A Growing Threat: Extreme Storms Are Just One Way Climate Change Is Affecting Immigrant Farmworkers

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This photo provided by NASA shows Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, as it threatened the U.S. East Coast. Photo: Courtesy NASA via AP

The words of a fire department chief from the small town of Windsor, North Carolina, come to mind as Corey Davis tries to describe how his state’s weather has changed in recent years.

A climatologist at the State Climate Office of North Carolina, Davis recalls attending a meeting about climate change in early 2017 where scientists were discussing extreme weather events such as Hurricane Matthew, which only months before had caused $4.8 billion in damage, including $400 million in agricultural losses.

The fire chief from the town about 15 miles in from the coast stood up to ask, “How frequent is this sort of event?” Davis says. “One in 500 to 1,000 years,” he was told. “Then we have people in our town who must be 1,000 years old!” he replied.

“The storms we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so,” Davis concludes, “we just don’t have a historical comparison, and they’ve been catching farmers and others completely off guard.”

What’s more, the fire chief’s comment was made before Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina on Sept. 14 of last year and “did the work of two or three storms on its own,” Davis says, causing an estimated $1.1 billion in crop damage and livestock losses, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Agriculture is vital to the Southeast’s economy; Appalachian states Georgia and North Carolina are among the top 15 states in agricultural production nationwide. And immigrant farmworkers are vital to the industry; they make up more than 90 percent of all farmworkers, according to most estimates. That includes farmworkers with temporary, H-2A visas, and farmworkers who are undocumented.

In North Carolina, about 20,000 farmworkers have H-2A visas this year, and an untold tens of thousands more are undocumented. Growers have used an increasing number of H-2A farmworkers in recent years and Georgia and North Carolina are also among the top 10 nationwide in this category.

Scientists are predicting extreme weather events linked to climate change will become more common, but states and the federal government have overlooked immigrant farmworkers not only in planning for severe storms, but also for changes such as rising temperatures. Not including immigrant farmworkers could negatively impact the agricultural economy of these states, while also placing the health and safety of tens of thousands of farmworkers at risk.


When Hurricane Florence landed in North Carolina, the storm didn’t just set records for the amount of rain it dumped, or for being one of the top 10 most economically destructive storms in U.S. history, causing more than $25 billion in damage all told. It was also the first time scientists tried to make a unique kind of forecast, as the storm was in progress.

Michael Wehner, a climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,  together with several colleagues at Stony Brook University, published an analysis Sept. 11, 2018, estimating how much more rain Hurricane Florence would dump on the state due to climate change. The storm made landfall on Sept. 14.

The researchers estimated that global warming would increase the storm’s rainfall by about 50 percent.  

“A change in precipitation due to global warming has already emerged,” Wehner said. “In storms like Florence and Harvey, the increase is more than you might expect.” One reason, he said, is simple physics: warm air can hold more water.

In fact, the amount of rainfall alone from Florence, reaching nearly three feet in some areas, was “completely unheard of in history,” climatologist Corey Davis says.

Hurricane Florence also ranged further inland than previous storms and was “more wide-sweeping, because previous storms centered on one part of the state,” Davis says. He observed that in the western part of North Carolina on Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains, Florence brought 74 mph winds and a record-setting 14 inches of rain in one day.

Although a lot less rain fell in the western, mountainous part of the state than on the coast or eastern lowlands, this much rain “has an impact, and sweeps across the state in rivers, flooding in a second wave” after the storm, Davis says.

Wehner, who contributed to a chapter on “extreme storms” in the National Climate Assessment, a Congressionally-mandated, peer-reviewed report, says in the future, he “wouldn’t be surprised if storms like these would affect all 100 counties” of North Carolina. But storms are not just ranging wider geographically, they’re also becoming more frequent.

Recently-compiled data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that in the last three decades alone, the number of severe storms causing at least $1 billion in damage in North Carolina increased from two during the 1980s to 20 in the last nine years alone. Other Appalachian states are seeing similar changes. In Georgia, those numbers increased from two to 27. In Tennessee, they’ve gone from one to 28, and in South Carolina, from three to 20.

The fourth National Climate Assessment cited economic projections that “southern and midwestern populations are likely to suffer the largest losses from projected climate changes in the United States,” and noted that “[e]xtreme rainfall events have increased in frequency and intensity in the Southeast, and there is high confidence they will continue to increase in the future,” which will likely lead to future crop damage and livestock loss due to severe weather events and, in turn, less work for immigrant farmworkers as growers recover.


The National Climate Assessment points to another change in store for the Southeast: “while some climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and extreme downpours, are being acutely felt now, others, like increasing exposure to dangerously high temperatures—often accompanied by high humidity…are expected to become more significant in the coming decades.”

Indeed, “[s]ixty-one percent of major Southeast cities are exhibiting some aspects of worsening heat waves…a higher percentage than any other region of the country,” the report notes. The most pronounced effect to date has been in night time temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with the number of nights this decade more than twice the average from 1901 to 1960. The so-called “freeze-free” season has also been more than one and a half weeks longer than any period in recorded history.

Increased temperatures, along with drier summers and wetter falls, could also decrease productivity for crops like cotton, corn, soybeans and rice, as well as tree crops like peaches. This would mean less work for immigrants: the report includes a projected loss of a half-billion hours of work in agriculture, timber and manufacturing by the end of the century.

But higher temperatures can also lead to injury and death for farmworkers in the meantime — as happened in Georgia last year, when a 24-year-old man who had come from Mexico less than a week earlier died picking tomatoes in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

But neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nor other agencies have created federal heat stress standards, said Virginia Ruíz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. Currently, Washington and California are the only states that have them, Ruíz said. Her organization and 130 others have petitioned OSHA to create such standards as breaks, shade and water for workers exposed to extreme heat.

“I’m particularly worried about heat waves,” Wehner says. “This is a population that makes its livelihood by being outside … [and] the effect of heat on agricultural workers in this region has not been adequately explored.”


Despite their importance to the economic life of these states, immigrant farmworkers “are seen as replaceable cogs,” said Karen MacClune, executive director of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-International, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit organization that researches climate change and helps communities respond to natural disasters.

In a recently-published report called “Hurricane Florence: Building Resilience for the New Normal,” ISET-International recommends using “economic motivators as levers for action” in planning for natural disasters. Since “[t]his population is vitally important to the economy,” the private and public sector should include it in plans, says Rachel Norton, an author of the report.

Such planning would address the vulnerabilities of  H-2A visa-holders and undocumented farmworkers during and after natural disasters, which  include: not speaking English; not knowing the lay of the land; not having transportation; not wanting to violate H-2A contracts or act without guidance from  growers; and not wanting to expose themselves to immigration authorities, if undocumented. In addition, in the wake of extreme weather, neither population is eligible for most federally-funded, state-administered disaster relief.

Community organizations like the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN) have been invited to government meetings about hurricane preparedness after Hurricane Florence, said Juvencio Rocha Peralta, executive director. The problem: “[We] need to be involved in planning,” he said. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

“Politicians should have a plan, and dedicated budget, focused on vulnerable populations, including African-Americans and immigrants,” says Juvencio Rocha Peralta, executive director of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN), an organization that has worked since 2001 with Hispanics in a 29-county area in the eastern part of the state.  “But they never have.”

The combined impact of being uniquely vulnerable and largely excluded from disaster planning is that survival often depends on the kindness of strangers and the efforts of nonprofit or community organizations, most of which are under-funded. After storms recede, an untold number of undocumented farmworkers leave states where they’ve been working, upon discovering that there is little to no way of recovering housing and other material possessions lost to storms.

“Disaster response is all about systems,” says Scott Marlow, senior policy specialist at the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization. Marlow has worked on 18 natural disasters. “The problem is the systems are not well-equipped on the front end to respond to the needs of H-2A or undocumented farmworkers.”

In the end, this may wind up jeopardizing the broader economy, says MacClune, of ISET. “At what point do we think about our food supply?” she asks. “If a key element is immigrant labor…how do we think about them?”

This is the second story in Unseen, a series exploring how climate change related severe storms are impacting immigrant workers in southern Appalachia. Read more from the series here.

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Yesenia’s Story

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Rumors spread on Facebook and other social media after Hurricane Florence caused the Neus River to flood, saying federal immigration authorities were parked in a local Wal-Mart parking lot, said Yesenia Cuello. "Of course, [immigrant farmworkers] stayed away" -- even though the store was the main source of food and water for many in the area after the storm. Photo: Jesse Pratt Lopez/100 Days in Appalachia

Yesenia Cuello worked in tobacco fields when she was a teenager, and now helps farmworkers as program director at NC Field, a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization.

She says immigrant farmworkers are vulnerable during and after extreme storms whether they have a temporary, H-2A visa or not, for reasons ranging from not speaking English to being afraid of running across federal immigration authorities.

Video Produced by Jesse Pratt Lopez

This story is part of Unseen, a series exploring how climate change related severe storms are impacting immigrant workers in southern Appalachia. Read more from the series here.

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