Neighbors helping neighbors: Immokalee farmworkers mobilize for hurricane relief in Fort Myers, Arcadia worker communities!

Two weeks ago, the second-deadliest storm to make landfall in the U.S. this century landed in Florida — and not just anywhere in Florida, but in Southwest Florida, Immokalee’s very own corner of the Sunshine State.  Miraculously, Immokalee itself was fortunate this time, as Florida’s largest farmworker community managed to dodge Hurricane Ian’s worst blows.  But by the fierce logic of monster storms like Ian, Immokalee’s good fortune would necessarily be another community’s worst nightmare, and on this occasions the neighboring towns of Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Arcadia, Cape Coral, and even Naples absorbed the full force of Ian’s 155 mph sustained winds and — worst of all — nearly 20 inches of rain and 15-18 feet of storm surge from the warm waters of the Gulf. 

Somehow, photos of the disaster that spread across the country in the storm’s aftermath don’t even begin to do justice to the life-altering destruction left behind by the devastatingly violent storm: the historic storm surge swept entire houses, boats, and cars miles from where they once stood, many swallowed and disappeared forever by the surf; the Category 5 winds ripped decades-old Southern live oaks and massive Banyan trees — roots and all — from the ground, and tore doors, roofs, and walls from their foundations.  As dawn broke on the devastated landscape and the scope of the damage came into view, farmworkers in Immokalee called on our national network of allies to help us mobilize urgently-needed support for the thousands of families hit the hardest by Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida.

And the Fair Food Nation, as always, stepped up with a truly remarkable show of solidarity. Countless allies from across the state sent nonperishable food and water directly to Jesus the Worker Parish in Fort Myers, and over 100 supporters helped us raise over $15,000 to fund our relief efforts! 

Drawing on the CIW’s hard-won hurricane relief experience following 2017’s Hurricane Irma, a team of CIW leaders and local volunteers quickly drew up plans to help our neighbors.  We mapped out the most affected areas in nearby coastal cities that had yet to receive any relief, made extensive shopping lists of essential food and supplies, spent hours re-packing bulk goods into individual family packages, rented and loaded multiple U-haul box trucks, and sent out teams to distribute materials to affected communities in Fort Myers, Naples, and Arcadia. We also packed up our chainsaws, gloves, and sunscreen (skies are almost always the clearest in the wake of hurricanes…) and made our way to Fort Myers Congregational United Church of Christ — a Fair Food Congregation whose congregants have supported farmworkers’ rights for decades — to help our friends clear the fallen trees, branches and other storm debris from their damaged roof that had scattered throughout their yard.  And today, as we write, our team is traveling to the hardest hit areas of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, helping low-income working families to clear the worst of the trees which – even two weeks later – remain strewn in their yards and across their rooftops.  

All too often, the Immokalee community finds itself on the receiving end of support like this after a storm.  The farmworkers’ often substandard housing stock and precarious economic conditions render towns like Immokalee particularly vulnerable to the kind of destruction Florida’s hurricanes can wreak.  But on this occasion, following this particularly brutal and deadly storm, the Immokalee community was largely spared, and so stood ready to lend a helping hand, and a shoulder to lean on, so necessary in times like these,  when everything can appear lost and no clear path back to a normal life is in sight.

We want to send a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has volunteered their time, made a donation, and sent in materials to support the CIW’s relief work — your support has played a critical role in providing direct, immediate relief for those most directly affected by Hurricane Ian. The hard truth is that it will be months – in some cases, years – before these communities will recover and return to a “new normal,” whatever that new world exactly looks like.  For some, it will never be the same. 

But as we know all too well from our own experience following Hurricane Irma, the selfless support and generosity of neighbors in the immediate wake of a disaster can make all the difference in stabilizing a community and setting it on the path to a full recovery. 

Before we go, we leave you with several photos documenting our work over the past few weeks, as well as the resiliency of so many families in Southwest Florida who, despite facing unimaginable devastation, have begun slowly re-building their own lives and their communities: