Battered and jobless, migrant workers in Florida fear days ahead AFTERMATH OF ANDREW

September 01, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- When relief crews rushed out to help the victims of Hurricane Andrew, the migrant farm workers of Everglades Labor Camp were among the last to be remembered. When the effort slackens, they'll likely be among the first forgotten.

But for now, at least, the migrant workers are pretty much like everybody else living in south Dade County in the wake of the storm. They scrounge for food, water and medical supplies. They sleep in leaky, torn homes. And they suffer amid growing mounds of garbage and burgeoning populations of rats, mosquitoes and stray dogs.

All the problems caused by the hurricane can be found at the Everglades camp in their most magnified form.

First there is the destruction. The mobile home park that made up most of the camp is a gigantic pile of rubble, as if the whole thing had been tossed into a blender and then poured onto the ground over a bunch of uprooted trees.

The two dozen or so cinder-block homes that stood at one end still stand, but their roofs are ripped open and knocked askew, and inside they are heaped with wet mounds of insulation and wallboard.

Of the few cars and trucks the workers owned, many have been overturned or smashed by blowing debris.

Some 1,800 migrants were living at the camp the weekend before Andrew hit. More than half evacuated to shelters then. Several hundred more left a few days ago on buses, headed for other temporary shelters.

The approximately 350 who remain are crowded into the homes that still stand, such as the four-room house of Francisco Javier Gonzales, 26.

Mr. Gonzales, his wife and their four children share the place with two other families -- 17 people in all.

"Everything is wet," he said as he led a visitor through the front door, waving at a cloud of mosquitoes. "There is no electricity. There are a lot of mosquitoes."

On the floor of one small room, roughly 8 feet by 10 feet, a man sat glumly among four children. The youngest, a 2-year-old, lay on a small, thin cot, wailing loudly. The other three stared wide-eyed out the door to the living room, where three other children played on a slippery floor next to a pile of water jugs and a sack of rice.

In the middle of the living room, a mother tilted a small bottle of baby formula into the mouth of her 2-month-old son. The baby paused, coughed and then continued.

Like most homes in the camp, there is little or no English spoken here, only Spanish or, in some places, Creole.

On the night the hurricane hit nine days ago, these families huddled in the center of their homes while windows blew out and chunks of the roof tore loose. Sheets of aluminum shredded from the obliterated mobile homes blew up against walls and twisted themselves around fallen trees like gum wrappers.

In the week since that terrifying night, waves of new misery have been rolling in like a cycle of biblical plagues.

Hunger and dehydration came first.

For unknown reasons, no relief crews came by the Everglades Camp at all until two and three days after the storm. By then some people were so desperate they almost rioted, and relief trucks departed quickly, returning later with police escorts.

Not until Friday, five days after the night of Andrew, did help arrive in earnest.

The migrant workers could have gone to collect food and water in some of the cars and trucks that still worked. Or they could have evacuated on the buses that came by last Wednesday.

But many of the holdouts are illegal aliens, said John Campbell, a policeman from Atlantic City, Fla., near Jacksonville, who has become de-facto mayor of the place since Friday, ordering work crews about, rounding up medical help and flagging down relief trucks as they rolled down the road next to the camp.

"They're very afraid to seek help," he said. "It took a long time for me to able to approach a lot of them without them running away."

The sight of National Guardsmen still sets some of them into a skittish trot, and a mild panic ensued for a while Sunday afternoon when a truck clearly marked "Border Patrol" pulled into a far corner of the camp. But the federal Immigration agents were only doing what everybody else among South Florida officialdom is doing these days -- helping out any way they could.

When truckloads of food, water and supplies started arriving in greater numbers Friday, the flaws of the relief program soon became evident.

"People will come in here and stack things up, and it will rain tonight, just like it did last night, and everything will get soaked and ruined," Mr. Campbell said. 'People drive in here, they get frustrated, and they say, 'We can't store this stuff anymore,' so they just dump it out."

For now, abundance, even excess, prevails at the camp. Shelf after shelf of baby foods are stacked inside the camp's health center, next to a huge mound of packages of disposable diapers.

Outside, soggy boxfuls of tomatoes and peaches have begun to rot in the sun.

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