CALLAWAY, Fla. — They arrived by the hundreds last year after Hurricane Michael sliced through the Florida Panhandle, packing 160-mile-per-hour winds that snapped pine trees in half, mangled steel posts, ripped off roofs and upended people’s lives. Without electricity, potable water or reliable accommodation, a rapid-response labor force got to work carting away the wreckage.
In the ensuing months, the workers — nearly all of them from Central America, Mexico and Venezuela — toiled day and night across Bay County to reopen Panama City’s City Hall, repair the local campus of Florida State University and fix damaged roofs on several churches. In towns like Callaway, which saw 90 percent of its housing stock damaged by the Category 5 storm last October, they are still working.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.2 million Americans live in coastal areas at risk of significant damage from hurricanes. The increased frequency and severity of such disasters have given rise to a new recovery-and-reconstruction work force.
It is overwhelmingly made up of immigrants.
Like the migrant farmworkers of yesteryear who followed the crops, the hurricane workers move from disaster to disaster. They descended on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Houston after Harvey; North Carolina after Florence; Florida after Irma and Michael. And as the United States confronts more extreme weather caused by climate change, theirs has become a growth industry.
Lorenzo, a 67-year-old from Mexico, is adept at elevating and moving houses to higher ground, and keeps pictures on his cellphone to prove it — mansions he rescued in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston.
Marcelo, 44, specializes in siding. “In a week here I can earn what I make in a month in Brazil,” he said in the 95-degree heat as he installed a gray facade on a one-story house in Callaway.
Many of the hurricane workers are undocumented immigrants who entered illegally across the southwestern border. Others are asylum seekers, fleeing persecution in their home countries, or tourists who were supposed to remain in the country for only a few months. Many said they came because they knew the work was plentiful and promised to pay well.
But since arriving in Bay County during the chaotic weeks after Hurricane Michael, many of the immigrant workers have been exploited by employers who do not always pay what they are owed, or landlords who charge exorbitant rent for their temporary quarters. In this relatively conservative corner of the country, some have been stopped by sheriff’s deputies and transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Sometimes we work and work, we trust people and then we don’t get paid,” said Will, a 44-year-old Honduran immigrant who has worked successive hurricanes since Katrina in 2005. Like others, he asked to be identified only by his first name out of concern that he could be targeted for deportation, which he said was a constant worry.
A Florida law passed this year requires localities to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. In 2018, 24 immigrants were transferred from the Bay County sheriff to ICE, the federal agency that oversees deportations. In the first three months of this year, the most recent period for which data was available, 42 people were transferred.
Last month, a group of immigrants who cleaned up two resorts in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma in 2017 filed suit in federal court in Miami against a disaster-restoration company called Cotton Holdings and Daniel Paz, the owner of a staffing firm, alleging that they were not paid minimum wage or overtime for hours worked. Among other tasks, they had removed debris, downed trees and rotten drywall, according to the complaint.
Bellaliz Gonzalez, a Venezuelan plaintiff who entered the United States on a tourist visa, said in an interview that her boss threatened to turn her and other workers over to immigration authorities when they complained that their paychecks had bounced.
“I felt powerless. They were abusing immigrants who came to work honorably,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 53, who estimates that she is owed $2,000 and has since applied for asylum.
In Bay County, a nonprofit called Resilience Force has been meeting with immigrant workers, trying to organize them and lobby to improve conditions. “Since Katrina, we have a new work force,” Saket Soni, the group’s executive director, told a large group at a recent gathering. “You are that work force, rebuilding city after city in the wake of hurricanes.”
At a meeting of Bay County commissioners in mid-September, Mr. Soni asked them to consider an ordinance that would make it a violation of county law to underpay or retaliate against workers. Most workers are promised between $15 and $20 an hour.
“Wage theft is a tremendous hindrance to the rebuilding of this part of the country, and we’d like you to take this up at the anniversary of the hurricane,” he said.
The meeting also featured workers who shared their own stories. Ana Salazar, 58, said she had come from Venezuela with her two sons to do debris removal and reconstruction. The immigrant said that she represented several workers employed by Winterfell Construction, owned by one of the county commissioners, Tommy Hamm. They had received “absolutely no payment from the company,” she said, weeping as she recounted her experience in Spanish.
Each time the unpaid workers sought redress, said Ms. Salazar, who was brandishing a safety vest bearing Winterfell’s logo, they were threatened with eviction from the housing they had been provided.
“We didn’t have any other place to live,” she said. “To eat, we had to forage for leftovers, canned food, in abandoned houses.” Sixty workers remain unpaid, said the immigrant, who calculates that she is owed $6,713.
Several other workers corroborated Ms. Salazar’s account in detailed interviews, but Mr. Hamm, in a subsequent interview, said that neither Ms. Salazar nor the other workers present had worked directly for him. Construction companies such as his rely on several tiers of subcontractors to assemble crews, he said. “I’m not the one who was supposed to pay them,” he said.
During a May campaign rally in Panama City Beach, along the coast of Bay County, President Trump did not specifically mention the itinerant work force carrying out much of the region’s hurricane repairs in a speech that highlighted undocumented immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” he said.
“How do you stop these people?” he asked, and someone in the crowd replied, “Shoot them!” Mr. Trump then declared, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.”
But in a county where seven out of 10 voters supported the president in 2016, there has been little political opposition to the hurricane workers.
“We’ve had a lot of Spanish-speaking workers. I say, ‘Thank Heaven for them.’ We’d be a lot further from recovering if it weren’t for them,” said Pamn Henderson, the mayor of Callaway, who like many homeowners is living in a trailer in her front yard until repairs on her house can be completed.
“Whatever their work status, that’s between them and their employer,” she said.
Standing in the backyard of his house where the sun room had been ripped off its foundation, Joe Geoghagan, 76, said, “They’re all Mexicans. You can’t get nobody else to work.” Hiring them, he added, “doesn’t bother me one bit. I’m too old to crawl on top of a house.”
Most of the hurricane laborers said the work, despite the challenges, was welcome because it enabled them to get a foothold in the United States and send money home — though their temporary homes in the Florida Panhandle, they admitted, were often barely habitable.
José Hernandez, an expert at framing, and his brother, Rigoberto, who recently arrived from Honduras, said they were paying $1,200 a month to live in a house gutted by the storm — with an uneven concrete floor, missing doors and scavenged furniture.
Will, the worker from Honduras, said he and three fellow immigrants were paying $250 each to share a shack that had been dilapidated even before Hurricane Michael. They fixed the plumbing, put in a new front door and replaced the faucets and shower head in the bathroom. But the stench of mildew engulfed the kitchen, glass was missing from windows and instead of a ceiling, there was only a skeletal wooden frame.
Will seemed more embarrassed about his abode’s sorry state than that he was overpaying to live in a teardown. “We could fix it up beautiful,” he said, if only the landlord would pay for the materials.
Still, with earnings from his hurricane work through the years, he said, “I built a house for my family in Honduras.”
From his blue Ford F-150 parked outside, polished to a gloss, he retrieved receipts for money he had sent them.