Friday, November 30, 2007

CA Fmworkers Struggle After Fires

Wildfires leave farmworkers in precarious financial situation.
BY VICKI DESORMIER SAN DIEGO November 14, 2007 /Disaster News Network

Picking through the charred leaves and crisp remains of fruit and flowers, growers and farmworkers in San Diego County may feel alone in the fields.

Each farmer has had to take a look at the wildfire damage to his crops and make the hard decisions about how to handle the situation and get back on the road to recovery. For farmworkers, their road back to recovery will be especially long and difficult.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said there are few agencies offering fire recovery planning assistance to area growers.

"They're pretty much on their own," he said.

Larson's organization recognizes that each farm and nursery has been affected in a unique way because of the way natural disasters grab with indiscriminate fingers at one location while ignoring other spots nearby.

Overall, he estimated, the county's $1.5 billion agricultural industry suffered a $42 million loss from the recent wildfires. At some farms, there was only minor damage. At others, there was 100 percent loss.

For those who work in the fields and whose livelihood depends on the crops, the fires imposed a more personal toll. Most live paycheck to paycheck and income lost during the fires has left the already struggling workers in dire financial need.

Most of the workers in the San Diego area are permanent employees who work year-round, Larson said. Migrant workers are added to the rolls in the spring to pick strawberries and in late summer to harvest tomatoes.

The rest live in the urban areas of the county.

"Many of them are at an economic disadvantage already. They are in single paycheck houses and are either uninsured or underinsured," said Michelle Scott of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Scott said the employees are the ones who have been affected most immediately by the fires. Because of their fragile financial situation, they are quick to fall behind on their bills and to face homelessness for themselves and their families, she said.

The Farm Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are offering assistance to the farm owners and growers. Farmworkers were put out of work by the fires and were not paid while the farms and nurseries burned.

Even a short time without a paycheck is devastating to the workers, Scott said. Many have now returned to their places of employment to clean up and start over, but they have already fallen behind in their financial responsibilities, she said.

Larson said the full extent of the damage to crops won't be known for some time. Dawn Neilson, of the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures for San Diego County, said that the figures for losses for tomato, avocado and floral crops might not be compiled for several months.

"We have a preliminary figure about the losses at the farms and nurseries in the county, but we won't have the final figures for some time," she said.

Scott said the financial losses from the burned plants could be recovered within a year or two, but many of the farmworkers that lost what is often their only source of income will not bounce back so easily.

"They still have a roof over their heads because they live in areas that weren't affected by the fires," she said. "But they are just a few dollars away from homelessness in some cases because they haven't got enough money to keep going very long without work."

UMCOR has set up a variety of assistance programs designed to help farmworkers navigate through the difficult times. Donations were being solicited to help those who lost paychecks or who may have been injured by the fires while still at work.

"Many of the agricultural workers are either uninsured or underinsured," Scott said. "Some of them were hospitalized in addition to not having income during the recovery period."

She said that while the fires caused a great deal of financial woes for the agricultural industry in San Diego County, the human suffering was also great.

"We are helping people who have lost their livelihoods as well as those who are hurt and in need of medical care," she said. "We are doing what we can to make things easier."

Larson said the fires have been devastating in San Diego County. Because the blazes destroyed some properties while doing only minor damage or missing other properties, it is sometimes difficult to help relief organizations find the people who need help the most.

"We do our best," he said. "And the relief organizations that are here are doing a lot for the people who are in trouble. There's a lot to be done in San Diego County, but people like UMCOR are making a difference."

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