As Irma makes its way up Florida’s Gulf Coast, it’s on a path to disrupt some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. The Florida coasts and flood-prone areas are home to many people who are particularly vulnerable in storms, including people living in mobile homes, migrant laborers and older people, many of whom have limited mobility or health concerns. These are far from the only groups at risk of bearing the burden of a storm as strong and big as Irma, but they each face a set of unique challenges.
Florida has a large population of migrant workers throughout the year — 150,000 to 200,000 people, according to the Florida Department of Health. Some are undocumented (not all migrant workers are undocumented, and the majority of undocumented immigrants in Florida are not migrant workers) and have expressed fear that they might be detained by authorities if they seek shelter. Those fears may have been made worse after NBC News reported that coordinated immigration raids were planned around the country for next week. (NBC later reported that the administration had canceled the raids because of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.) Even though authorities from several counties have said they won’t be asking for papers at shelter sites, some undocumented immigrants have said they are afraid to evacuate.
Migrant laborers, regardless of immigration status, also frequently live in notoriously shoddy housing that is at particular risk of being devastated by hurricanes.
The Florida Department of Health says enough permits have been provided to ensure that 34,000 migrants have adequate housing, but that leaves a lot of people living in potentially vulnerable conditions. When Hurricane Andrew struck a migrant labor camp in Miami-Dade County in 1992, it was demolished. Left with nothing to eat but rancid food, several residents fell ill with food poisoning, The New York Times reported at the time. Conditions have improved since then, but many still live in substandard housing.
Immokalee, an area southeast of Fort Myers, on the southern section of the state’s western coast, is at the heart of Florida’s tomato industry and home to a large farmworker community that has fought a decades-long battle for better wages and working conditions. Still, 44 percent of the area’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 4,000 of the 24,000 or so residents were in shelters as of Saturday evening, according to the Naples Daily News.
Mobile homes are among the first places to be evacuated in any storm’s path; ahead of Irma, the state issued voluntary or mandatory evacuations for mobile-home residents in at least 18 counties. Depending on the quality of construction, mobile homes are particularly vulnerable to wind and water damage.
In some areas around Tampa Bay, a large share of the housing is mobile homes. They make up more than 40 percent of the units in some census tracts on the southern side of the Bay. About 4,000 mobile homes are located in that area, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Although standards have changed for mobile homes in recent decades, Florida has many older mobile homes, which are frequently damaged in big storms.
Florida’s reputation as a retirement center is well earned. The state has a larger share of people age 65 or older — 19.9 percent — than any other state. And a high share of Gulf Coast residents are older adults. In Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, 36.6 percent of households are headed by someone 65 or older, compared with 29.6 percent statewide, according to University of Florida data. In Charlotte County, just north of Lee, 49.5 percent of household heads are 65 or older.
Older residents may live in assisted living facilities, adult family care or hospice. Medical treatments requiring electricity are a challenge in storms, and mobility issues can make it hard to move around. Irma turned west in the final hours before it made U.S. landfall, and the areas surrounding Fort Myers and Tampa were evacuated later than the Miami-Dade area, which had been preparing for days. That left some assisted living facilities moving residents to designated evacuation shelters in the hours before the storm hit.
Of course, there are numerous other groups that will face challenges in the days ahead. Many needs will go unmet as Irma’s cruel chaos upends lives in unexpected ways.