ARCADIA, Fla. — As the people of Florida were digging out from Hurricane Charley Aug. 25, three Marine sergeants arrived at the home of Carlos Arredondo in Hollywood, Fla. They were bringing news that would hit Arredondo even harder than a force four hurricane. His son, Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo, had been killed in Najaf, Iraq.

In bitter grief, the father, a Costa Rican immigrant, retrieved a can of gasoline from his garage, doused the U.S. government van and set it on fire before the stunned officers could stop him. He suffered burns over 26 percent of his body. The Pentagon is not pressing charges even though the van was destroyed. Melida Arredondo, stepmother of the slain soldier, said on Good Morning America that her husband’s rage “is his scream that his child is dead. This war needs to stop.”

Florida ranks fourth nationwide in the number of Iraq war fatalities. The Arredondo family’s tragedy, coupled with two hurricanes in less than a month, is a reminder that the people of Florida are in a world of pain.

Tens of thousands have been left homeless and unemployed, waiting anxiously for massive relief that only the federal government can deliver. Some compare their plight to that of the people of Baghdad waiting for water, food, shelter and electricity. George W. Bush asked for $2 billion to repair the damage from Hurricane Charley even though the cost from that blast was at least $7 billion. Now Hurricane Frances has roared through the state and the official damage estimate for both hurricanes is $40 billion.

Hurricane Charley’s mass devastation

Take Emma Martinez, a juvenile justice counselor for the state of Florida. She had joined hundreds at a Red Cross soup kitchen in the parking lot of St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in this devastated farm worker town, located about 50 miles east of Sarasota, one afternoon.

She told the World her husband had just brought her home from the hospital, still hurting from surgery, the evening Hurricane Charley struck. “It was blowing so hard we couldn’t get out of the pickup truck so we just kept on driving to the shelter,” she said.

Hundreds had taken refuge, packed like sardines in the main meeting hall. “Thirty minutes after we arrived, the roof lifted up and was gone. The wind and rain came in. People panicked and stampeded over me. I was still in pain and vomiting. Red Cross workers came in and rescued me.” They took her to another shelter that was also barely holding together against the tempest. “I went back to my house a week and a half later,” she said. “The roof was badly damaged. All my furniture and carpets were soaked.”

Martinez said she had to buy a portable generator with her own money even though the federal government claims it is providing vouchers to buy the generators for thousands of families still without power. “At least my house is still standing. My neighbors, mostly farm workers, lived in mobile homes that were destroyed. How could we turn them away? We have two other families living with us whose homes were completely wiped out.”

Immigrants and poor hit especially hard

Martinez had brought a young mother with her two children to the Red Cross station. “She hopes that Red Cross or Catholic Charities will provide her some financial assistance because the federal government is denying funds to immigrants,” Martinez said. “Many more migrant farm workers will start arriving home from up north where they were following the harvest. But 80 percent of the citrus crop has been destroyed. They will have no jobs. If the federal government is denying assistance to those who are here already, what hope is there for these families who come back in the fall?”

Sitting nearby was Joe Guzman, a disabled farm worker whose mobile home, a rental property, was destroyed. “I am staying in my landlord’s house. There are five of us and he is charging each of us $100 a month,” Guzman said in Spanish. “But I have no money because there is no work.”

A few blocks away, just off Martin Luther King Avenue, the homes of African American families were destroyed.

“This is living hell,” said one resident, Marshall Smith. “I’ve been here many years and I have never seen devastation like this. Bush thinks he will get a second term but I don’t think he will. His brother was down here promising money to rebuild but we’ve already been waiting too long. George W. Bush is a crook. He wants everything for himself and his rich friends.”

Smith showed this reporter his Veterans Administration ID. “I spent two years, six months and two days in the Army in Germany. I’m a veteran so it makes me angry that they would lie about John Kerry’s war record. He earned his medals.”

Price gouging and insurance swindles

It remains to be seen whether the Bush brothers will keep those promises. Everything will be off after Nov. 2, if Bush steals a second term. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) promised relief to victims of Hurricane Isabel last year. But thousands up and down the Atlantic seaboard never received a dime. The Florida attorney general has reported thousands of cases of price gouging and other swindles inflicted on the suffering people.

Allstate and State Farm Insurance, the two largest property insurance companies serving Florida, have connived with Florida officials to leave thousands of hurricane-battered homeowners holding the bag, according to a front page exposé in the Sept. 7 Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In 1992, WSJ reports, State Farm and Allstate paid out a combined total of $6.2 billion for damage inflicted by Hurricane Andrew. But after Hurricane Charley, they paid out only $625 million, 10 percent of their 1992 liability, even though the cost of construction has obviously soared in the past 12 years.

The WSJ said the shift is the result of “a decade of maneuvering by insurance companies and state officials that has dramatically reduced the obligations of private insurers to pay for the impact of catastrophic storms.” The changes include 400 percent increases in premiums and deductibles quietly implemented when the insurance companies threatened to dump 1.2 million homeowners after Hurricane Andrew. Florida officials agreed to “shift from insurance companies to consumers the burden of paying hundreds of millions of storm related losses,” WSJ charged. The insurance companies long ago stopped covering flood damage in Florida, one of the main sources of the hurricanes’ distruction.

Mac Jones, 53, a mailman in Belle Isle south of Orlando, told the WSJ his insurance company told him he must pay a 5.3 percent deductible or $6,200 to repair damage to his home. “This is legalized price gouging. They are ripping me off,” Jones said.

Labor mobilizes to give helping hand

By contrast, thousands of volunteers and other relief workers have flooded in to help the people, motivated not by profit greed but solidarity. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates have been among the most generous.

Al Dudzinski, an assembly line worker at GM’s Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., rushed to Florida with three other members of the United Auto Worker Local 1853 Disaster Response Team. The World interviewed him at the Red Cross command center in Bradenton, Fla.

“Too many people have the perception that the labor movement is just about wages and contracts,” Dudzinski said. “It’s not. We all experience disasters and setbacks and need neighbors who will reach out and lend a helping hand. Unions are among the first to respond but they don’t advertise it that much. I think we should. The labor movement gets a bad rap. But we are trying to raise the living standards for everyone.”

Dudzinski looked weary after several days of relief work. “We’ve been sleeping on the floor of this center,” he said. “That’s fine. We’re not here for our personal comfort. We’re here to help. We are not the ones who have lost everything.”

Keith Ebert, another UAW Local 1853 volunteer, interjected, “Big Business isn’t going to do that. That’s why we’re here. We were delivering food and water one day and a little girl came up and said, ‘Thank you for helping us.’ That made it all worthwhile. Disasters affect everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you are union or nonunion, rich or poor, young or old, Black, Latino or white. We’re human beings and we’ve got to stick together.”

Solidarity runs deep

Carl Askew, the AFL-CIO’s liaison with the Red Cross, is a veteran of many disasters. Based in Columbus, Ohio, he was one of those who volunteered for duty in New York City within hours of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. “The Red Cross was trying to find space in lower Manhattan. We found a CWA union hall within one block of ground zero,” he said. “It didn’t cost the Red Cross a penny. New York is 100 percent unionized. I had two IBEW electricians assigned to the effort all the time. We had unionized elevator mechanics, union carpenters — all union hardhats. My job was to make sure they had what they needed.”

Kelly Reffett, who serves as liaison with the Red Cross for the Chicago AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, said immediate response to humanitarian crisis is “second nature” for union men and women. “Usually the first union I call is the Teamsters because there are always transport needs,” she said. “They always respond within a minute’s notice. They are overwhelmingly generous. When 9/11 struck, all our Red Cross communications equipment was down in Nashville. We called the Teamsters. They and UPS responded immediately, rushing our equipment up to New York.”

Highly visible are the utility lineman with their fleets of cherry picker rigs enduring the heat, humidity, and daily tropical downpours to get electricity service in Florida restored. Most are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

James Romine was one of 76 linemen employed by the Dillard Construction Company of Chattanooga, Tenn. A member of IBEW Local 760, he was toiling to restore power in Port Charlotte. “We’ve got every rig we could muster in here,” he told the World. “It’s really bad. It’s so hot and humid and every afternoon the rain pours. We’re here until we get the job done. We’ve been through a lot of storms, Hugo, Andrew, an ice storm in Kansas City. We know what we’re doing saves lives and makes life livable for everyone.”

Unclear impact on the Nov. 2 vote

Gov. Jeb Bush skipped the GOP convention in New York, hoping to harvest a bumper crop of votes by orchestrating the relief efforts around Hurricane Charley. And the strategy seemed to be going well. Then Hurricane Frances struck the Sunshine State a second deadly blow. Now there are concerns that the devastation will make it that much harder to open enough polling places for the homeless thousands to insure a fair election with every vote counted.

Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida Alliance of Retired Americans, speaking before Hurricane Frances hit, told the World that it is too early to tell how the hurricane will affect Florida voters given the immensity of the humanitarian crisis. The misery is mounting and with it anger and frustration that so much is being squandered on needless war and tax gifts to the rich while human needs are unmet.

“Up until the Iraq war, I always supported the commander in chief,” said Fransetta, a Korean War vet. “But Iraq was a case of George W. Bush putting together myths and lies to justify a war on a nation that never killed a single American. This was a war of retribution, a war for oil. Florida is a battleground state. They keep trying to take it and we keep saying, ‘No!’ We won it last time and we’re going to win it again November 2.”

Tim Wheeler, the World’s national political correspondent, can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.

Tags:

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR

Sorry. No data so far.