"How are you, sir?"
“Well… ummm… I’m survivin’ ma’am.”
The first words I heard after stepping out of the car in Immokalee, Florida struck my core: a man’s gratitude to be alive.
Hurricane Irma devastated the farmworker town, though has received little attention from the media, aid organizations or federal recovery efforts. But my friends deployed a rapid, robust Grassroots Alliance disaster relief operation to provide free quality food, potable water and basic supplies to 6,000 people a day – and I showed up to support them in and contribute to their heroic, critical efforts which not only save lives and improve health, but also recognize and honor the dignity of fellow human beings during a moment of crisis. People are too often forgotten or deliberately overlooked when they live in disadvantaged communities, are not United States citizens, speak different languages, reside outside of easily accessible major cities, carry out the manual labor upon which our sustenance and economies depend, among a myriad of other societal biases.
Have you heard of Immokalee? New question: do you ever eat tomatoes in the winter? That may seem an odd segue, but about 90% of the tomatoes harvested across the country during the winter season are grown in that very place, in additional to a large percentage of the nation’s produce. The inland town in Southwest Florida is the regional agricultural hub and thus, home to tens of thousands of immigrants and migrant families who work the expansive fields.
Prior to this latest hurricane, more than half of the approximate 24,000 people lived in poverty, mostly Haitian and Latinx. Trailers are commonplace for the poorest residents, which took the brunt of the damage from winds and rains that far exceeded forecasts. Irma turned west, avoiding the billions of dollars of damage feared in Miami, but desecrating this other coast. Pieces of trailers blew into trees, blocked streets, flattened houses, wrecked porches; ceilings and walls of buildings collapsed entirely; uprooted trunks and limbs crushed cars and trailers; ongoing rains flooded cemeteries and the shoddy tents in which people were living after the storm passed and exacerbated the mold stemming from water absorption in homes. Dilapidated trailers and substandard shelter cannot withstand the power of increasingly forceful storms, whether it be Wilma or Andrew or the most recent Irma, which some said was the worst in their memory. An estimated 60% of the county’s trailers were damaged and well over 50 homes have been condemned since the natural disaster, yet people are still living in them, for there exists no other option or proper relocation plan, especially as few had any type of insurance. The poorest and most vulnerable among us do not have access to safe, adequate housing, which remains grossly lacking, yet an absolute necessity for the health and security of any community.
Businesses are closed, fields are flooded, work is scarce, so without incomes, people have no choice but to depend upon outside organizations and relief efforts for food, water, basic necessities. Many residents do not have cars, which means walking and waiting in line for supplies, services, and, of course, to begin the arduous, complex process of applying for recovery assistance or funding (which is largely federal, as there is no municipal government in Immokalee) to cover or supplement rent, belongings, home repair, income, childcare, survival expenses, the list goes on. Speaking from personal experience, as someone whose home was destroyed by a flood and forced to move out into a one-room hotel room with her mother and dog, let me tell you: FEMA payments do not cover even a fraction of expenditures or loses, if and when money ever arrives.
And as a CNN caption read, "In rural Immokalee, Florida, nobody has come to help the folks whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Irma.” I am hugely proud to say that my friends, however, are the exception. My adopted grandpa, Norman, and I drove up two hours from Miami to show gratitude and love for these beautiful souls, members of our beloved Burning Man family – and what a privilege to lend a hand. I rolled up my sleeves to open and break down cardboard boxes, fill kitchen water buckets, ready takeaway food containers, utilize my Spanish and (surprising) Haitian Kreyol skills, do whatever needed to be done, while Norman joyously served food on the lunch line, and then we did a supplies run for rudimentary camp items, like white boards, pens, paper, rags, and the all-critical wifi booster. You can follow the journey and impactful work of this amazing crew through photos, videos and posts on Facebook: David Alan Holtze, Tim Clark, Devin Coverdale, Ernesto Borges, Mike Perez, Terry Lenley, Denise M. Lozano, Kiyenne Light, Bobcat, and more.
The thoughtful, committed team is serving Immokalee from the crack of dawn until late night seven days a week, working incredibly hard and radiating warmth. They feel blessed to play any part in recovery, are honored to alleviate hunger amid catastrophe, strategize to reach the hardest hit underserved areas, gain inspiration from meaningful interactions with the community, and wake up excited about what positive opportunities each day of service will bring. In addition to countless comments of praise I heard while on the ground, I just read this comment on the Grassroots Alliance Facebook page: "Hi just wanted to say that me and my children were recipicients of plates yesterday here in immokalee and i wanted to say thank you the food is great and the people are so awesome.thank you so much for remebering our little town.” This efficient, effective non-profit has teamed up with our generous brother David Bronner and the Dr. Bronner's team for initial financial support, as well as an increasing number of mission-driven companies like Organic Valley and Patagonia.
Would you consider a donation of money, foods or other supplies to continue this vital work? 100% of your gift will go to feed hungry people with the mobile relief unit at a dire moment in time. Every dollar makes a difference: www.grassrootsalliance.org/donate. Our phenomenal friends at Grassroots Alliance and Dr. Bronner’s, alongside countless dedicated volunteers and relief workers across Florida and beyond, are living proof that we can all be the change, we can all do something, we can all show up, we can all give more, we can all serve. We are all one.