Poor pushed closer to the edge of ruin

The Mercury News Weekend - - NEWS - By Jay Reeves

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.

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