September 11, 2017


Hurricane Irma spared one Florida coast and slammed into another


By Patricia Sullivan, Perry Stein and John Woodrow Cox


 Hands folded and brown eyes hollow, Mario Valentine sat on his beige, faux-leather couch, staring at the cracked white panels and shredded pink insulation that, before the storm, had been the front wall of his mobile home. Above his head, where the roof used to be, was a row of wooden ribs, stripped bare. Beyond those was nothing but gray sky.

Sitting next to the farmworker, with her head on his shoulder and her hand on his knee, was Valentine’s 5-year-old daughter. She, too, looked ahead, silent.

All around Immokalee — an inland Southwest Florida town of 24,000, where nearly half the residents live in poverty — was evidence of Hurricane Irma’s power. Uprooted trees had blocked streets and smashed car windshields. Roofs were ripped off. One mobile home looked like a soda can that had been crushed under a boot heel.

“I saw Wilma, Andrew and Charley,” said Jackson Pierre, who lives nearby and has been a town resident for more than 15 years. “This was worse.”

The people here had expected stiff wind and rain, but not this. Not destruction. Not on their side of the peninsula.

Irma, though, kept churning west — past the South Beach condos, past the Miami high-rises, past Biscayne Bay — until, due south of the Sunshine State’s famous Keys, it finally turned through them. It spared one coast that had been awaiting devastation and devastated another coast that had been awaiting not much at all.

In Immokalee, Pierre, a disabled Haitian farmworker, had anticipated that the hurricane would have so little impact on his town that he and his wife, Barbara, tried riding it out in their mobile home.

“We were here until we saw the tree fall down on the front porch,” she said, recalling that they immediately left, in the middle of the storm, to walk — “no, run” — to the high school that served as an emergency storm shelter.

Down the street on Monday, Petrona Nunez, 24, held her toddler’s hand as she watched her husband, father and brother prop up a wobbly ladder to staple plastic sheets over the top and end of the mobile home where they’ve lived for more than a decade.

She works for the Florida Department of Agriculture, but the rest of her family members have manual labor jobs. Someone offered them a free night in a hotel, but after that, Nunez said, “we’ll just have to save up our money and fix it, I guess — if they let us fix it.”

They have no insurance.