For Minorities and the Poor, Natural Disasters Can Exact Lingering Toll

Farmworker Gabriela Gutierrez stands with her daughter, Genesis, and son, Osiel, next to the burned out remains of their trailer in Santa Paula. Photo credit: Claudia Boyd-Barrett


It could take Gabriela Gutierrez and her husband, Alejandro, years to recover what they lost in the Thomas Fire.

Although the farmworker couple didn’t own the trailer they lived in that went up in flames when the massive fire swept through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December, all of their possessions inside burned. Clothes, furniture, electronics, their children’s toys, the new stainless-steel barbeque they were so proud of, about $1,400 cash they’d stashed away.

They had no renters insurance.

“We couldn’t find nothing,” said Gutierrez, as she stood with her two young children on a recent morning in Santa Paula, staring at the charred remains of what was once their home. She and her family are now renting another trailer in the same park.

The remains of the Gutierrez family trailer. Photo credit: Claudia Boyd-Barrett

“It’s sad because it was hard work. You have to work all your life to buy what you need or what you want.”

No one is immune to the impacts of natural disasters. The Thomas Fire burned through comfortable hillside houses in Ventura and Santa Barbara, as well as some lower-cost apartment complexes and mobile homes. A few weeks later, during a rainstorm, the fire-charred hills in Montecito resulted in mudslides, destroying lives and property in one of the country’s wealthiest zip codes.

Yet for low-income people like Gutierrez who already teeter close to the economic edge, a natural disaster can be difficult to rebound from. Lower-income Californians are more likely to be renters and often have no insurance to cover property damage, alternate accommodation or other expenses necessary to rebuild their lives. Finding another rental they can afford is also extremely difficult in coastal California’s tight housing market, especially after a wildfire or other catastrophe further squeezes the supply.

Tara Carruth, Ventura County’s coordinator for the Continuum of Care, who is helping with efforts to find housing for people displaced by the fire, said the disaster has highlighted how difficult it already was for low-income people to afford a place to live here.

“We are seeing a pretty significant impact of primarily people who were sharing housing or living in guests homes, people who were renting rooms in properties … they’re people who need very affordable housing that does not currently exist,” she said. “(The fire) has illuminated how serious the housing crisis was. Not only did we lose some apartments that were pretty affordable…but also we are now understanding how many people were doubled up.”

Excluded from aid

Even if they don’t lose a home, poorer people are more likely than the well-off to face economic hardship as a result of disruption caused by a disaster. The Thomas Fire forced thousands of people to evacuate their neighborhoods, skip work, pay for hotels and find emergency childcare, all of which can pose an enormous challenge for those living paycheck to paycheck, local advocacy groups said.

“A lot of the media coverage and disaster response focused on homeowners,” said Lucas Zucker, policy director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a social justice organization focused on Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. “Actually, the families who were often most economically impacted were people who were domestic workers, landscape workers, farmworkers who lost a week or three weeks of work because the house where they do landscaping or childcare was evacuated, or their employer wasn’t wanting to have them work.”

For immigrants, especially those without legal status, the situation can be especially precarious. Undocumented people are often excluded from federal and other government disaster relief programs. Undocumented people may be able to apply for FEMA aid on behalf of family members who are citizens, however Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center in Sonoma said most families are unwilling to do this out of fear that information will be used against them.

Even if relief is made available to people in the country illegally, many are too afraid or suspicious to seek it, worrying that their information could be used to deport them, immigrant rights workers said.

Farmworker Lorena Carrillo speaks with members of the United Farm Workers Foundation delivering emergency supplies to her trailer park in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire. Photo credit: Claudia Boyd-Barrett

Immigration status and fears

Language barriers also prevent people from seeking help, or even understanding what’s available to them, said Zuleth Lucero, south coast regional coordinator for the United Farm Workers Foundation. She said members of the UFW Foundation visited Spanish-speaking families at an emergency shelter in Santa Paula during the fire and found many had no information about how or where to get help. When families realized Lucero and her colleagues spoke Spanish, they started asking for emergency supplies such as diapers, wipes, water and masks.

“They were not calling the Red Cross or the Salvation Army to ask for help—they’re calling us,” Lucero said. “I’m assuming they’re afraid because of their status.”

Not being able to seek or find help can add to people’s mental distress during and after a disaster, said Joshua Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University in Maryland.

“If you don’t use those (public resources) … you are potentially more vulnerable to adverse affects and impacts,” he said.

In Ventura County, the board of supervisors has allocated $500,000 to cover the cost of rental assistance and other emergency help for people displaced or on the brink of losing housing because of the fire. Recipients do not have to prove legal residency to qualify. Yet, Carruth acknowledged it’s a challenge getting people who are normally wary of the government to overcome their distrust.

Jennie Pittman, a senior manager at the county’s Human Services Agency said the county is partnering with community organizations to get the word out about the assistance.

Yahaira Ponce and Zuleth Lucero with the United Farm Workers Foundation deliver supplies to farmworker families affected by the Thomas Fire in Santa Paula. Photo credit: Claudia Boyd-Barrett

Meanwhile, nonprofits and funders in Ventura County are looking to create a special fund for immigrant families struggling because of the fire. The fund would be modeled after a similar effort established in Sonoma County after the wildfires there in October. Called the Undocufund, it’s so far raised $5.3 million dollars and awarded grants to about 3,800 people in Sonoma County, or about 10 percent of the undocumented population living there, said Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center which is involved in managing the funds.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who are really struggling,” she said, describing how one collective of domestic workers lost 50 homes they used to clean. “We’re just seeing a lot of need.”

Evacuation alerts weren’t translated

During the Thomas Fire itself, language became another barrier. In Ventura County, advocates reported that emergency authorities sent out evacuation alerts and other information such as advisories to boil water only in English during the first several days of the fire, leaving the area’s extensive Spanish-speaking population in the dark about what was happening and where to seek help. About 30 percent of Ventura County residents speak Spanish at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Josefina Zuniga, a Spanish speaking mother of three in Santa Paula said she stayed home with her children throughout the disaster, even when the fire came within half a mile of her house, because she couldn’t understand the emergency alerts on her phone or online and had no idea whether she was under evacuation orders or that there was an emergency shelter her family could go to.

“I feel like they forgot us,” she said of the authorities. “Why didn’t they help us?”

Immigrant rights group, the Oxnard-based Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, or MICOP, tried to fill the gap by translating emergency alerts on its website and on its radio station, said associate director Genevieve Flores-Haro. Following pressure from advocates, the county’s Office of Emergency Services eventually did provide information in Spanish, but only about 10 days after the fire had started, she said.

In response, state Assemblywoman Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) has announced she will introduce a bill requiring state and county Office of Emergency Services to translate emergency communications into the second most spoken language in a county.

“What the Thomas Fire, at least in my eyes, has uncovered are the discrepancies in which we approach communities in an emergency situation,” Flores-Haro said. “It’s uncovered a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of emergency situations and immigrant communities so that we’re better prepared the next time it happens.”

‘Dangerous and difficult conditions’

Farmworker safety was another concern during the fire. Many agricultural operations continued to send farmworkers into the fields during the fire and its smoky aftermath, often with no protective masks. These workers could be seen outside picking fruits and vegetables in the thick smoke, which was deemed hazardous at times by public health officials.

Community organizations and volunteers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties responded by passing out over 15,000 masks to farmworkers and residents in low-income immigrant neighborhoods. They also pressured the state Division of Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which later released an advisory mandating employers to take special precautions to protect workers who were outdoors.

Now that the fire is out, labor and immigrant rights advocates in Sonoma and Ventura are turning their attention to the health and wellbeing of workers during the cleanup effort. They already know from experiences in other disaster areas that the day laborers and construction workers hired to help with cleanups are often exposed to unsafe or unfair working conditions. A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago after Hurricane Harvey found that immigrant day laborers suffered rampant wage theft and exposure to hazardous conditions without adequate safety equipment or training.

“These folks are the second responders, the people working to rebuild our communities,” said Zucker. “Those workers don’t get the kind of consideration as firefighters and police officers, and are working under pretty dangerous and difficult conditions.”

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