Poor pushed closer to the edge of ruin
IMMOKALEE, FLA. » Larry and Elida Dimas didn’t have much to begin with, and Hurricane Irma left them with even less.
The storm peeled open the roof of the old mobile home where they live with their 18- year- old twins, and it destroyed another one they rented to migrant workers in Immokalee, one of Florida’s poorest communities. Someone from the government already has promised aid, but Dimas’ chin quivers at the thought of accepting it.
“I don’t want the help,” said Larry Dimas, 55. “But I need it.”
Dimas is one of millions of Floridians who live in poverty, and an untold number of them have seen their lives up- ended by Irma. Their options, already limited, were narrowed even further when the hurricane destroyed possessions, increased expenses and knocked them out of work.
Not far from Dimas in impoverished Immokalee, located on the edge of the Everglades, Haitian immigrant Woodchy Darius, a junior at Immokalee High School, must decide whether to return to class when school reopens or head to the fields to pick berries once the land is dry enough to work again.
“The rent is $375, and if I don’t have the money they’ll kick us out,” said Darius, 17. He lives in a grubby apartment building with bare concrete floors, burglarproof doors and cinderblock walls.
The Census Bureau estimates about 3.3 million people live in poverty in Florida — nearly 16 percent of the state’s 20.6 million population. For them, the amusement parks of Orlando or President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach might as well be on Mars.
Many work by the hour in restaurants, gas stations, hotels, stores and other businesses forced to close for days after Irma, depriving them of paychecks. Others are day laborers or migrants who earn money by the pound picking produce that’s sold in stores nationwide. Still others are retirees on fixed incomes or disability checks whose budgets already were tight before Irma.
Fleeing Irma wasn’t an option for those who lacked transportation to get to a shelter, couldn’t afford gas to drive north and couldn’t rent a hotel room. The likely costs associated with cleaning up or finding a new place to live pushed them closer to the edge than ever.
After Irma, Gwen Bush scrambled to find a place just to sleep after flood waters rose around her home.
A security worker for Amway Center in Orlando, Bush, 50, a lifelong resident of Orlando, hadn’t worked in the days leading up to Irma because concerts and other events had been canceled as the storm approached. It’s not certain when the arena will be open for business, and she was down to her final $10 before the storm.
David and Andrea Jewell survive on disability checks and live on a sailboat they bought for $1,000 on eBay years ago. David Jewell, 51, can’t imagine now living on land; both consider the ocean — like the dolphins they watch — their only real neighbors.
After the storm, the Jewells stayed on cots in the gym at a community center in Jacksonville. They tried to figure out if they could get a new boat if theirs was destroyed. Maybe, they decided, they could just cut back on food and find another cheap one with their next disability checks.
Beside his ruined Immokalee mobile home, Dimas is trying to get back on his feet. He earns a meager living cooking hamburgers and chicken in a food truck parked by his home, and some customers have returned — he said he sold all 40 of the hamburgers that were still safe to cook Tuesday.
Dimas needs to replace the income from his rental trailer, condemned after being split open by the wind.
Coping with Irma’s aftermath is only making life tougher for people with little who live in places including unincorporated Immokalee, said Dimas.