BY ANA RADELAT | GANNETT NEWS SERVICE
Construction worker Jose Gerardo Navarro realized as he watched TV images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina that the storm wasn’t just about tragedy—it was also about opportunity.
A call from a cousin in Mobile, Ala., confirmed Navarro’s suspicion—the Aug. 29 storm had created lots of work for people like him. So Navarro, 51, packed his pickup in Houston and sped toward Biloxi, Miss.
Hispanics like Navarro, who emigrated from Mexico nearly 30 years ago, are a major part of the work force that will clean up and rebuild the storm-stricken gulf coast, a gargantuan task that will take years.
Right now, Hispanic workers are cleaning debris, fixing and replacing roofs and performing a long list of other tasks. But their arrival by the thousands has resulted in incidents of exploitation. Some workers say their employers have cheated them out of pay or reneged on promises to provide housing, forcing the workers to live in tents or crowd into storm-damaged hotel rooms or shelters where Latinos weren’t always welcome.
Officials at Hispanic advocacy groups say some shelters turned away Hispanic workers, telling them the shelters were for local residents and storm evacuees only.
Navarro was hired by an Alabama construction company and led a seven-person crew that fixed roofs on storm-damaged homes.
But he said the company cheated him and his workers out of more than $16,000 in wages and never came through with promised housing. When the workers asked for their back pay, company officials threatened to report them to immigration authorities.
“We had to live in our trucks,” Navarro said. “They thought we were all illegal.”
The influx of Hispanics to the area also has generated political tensions.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin drew rebukes from Hispanic organizations when he asked last month during a meeting with business owners, “How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”
The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce called his remarks inappropriate and offensive. About 30,000 Latino workers have flocked to the gulf coast during the two months since Katrina, according to Andy Guerra, president of the Gulf Coast Latin American Association.
Some are U.S. residents who have worked in the United States for years. Others are new arrivals from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries.
An emergency-response hierarchy that has the federal government at the top generated demand for these workers.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency handed out billions of dollars in contracts to many large and some medium-size companies. Those companies hired dozens of subcontractors. And some of those subcontractors hired labor brokers in other states who are bringing thousands of Hispanic workers into the region.
President George W. Bush’s decision to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act for 45 days after Katrina hit increased the demand for low-wage Hispanic laborers. The temporary suspension allowed contractors with federal contracts to pay workers less than the prevailing wage.