Not only did the hurricanes stay away this year. Last month, farm workers opened a Community Disaster Center in Pierson to prepare for the next devastating storm, whenever it comes.
The center provides roughly 350 square feet of space to store emergency supplies such as food and medicine in a local office of the Florida Farm Workers Association. Church World Service funded the project after a series of devastating storms in 2004 and 2005.
Organizers of the project say that their biggest challenge was overcoming local opposition. Pierson is in a rural area that primarily grows ornamental ferns, and while the fern cutters are predominantly Hispanic, most of their employers and local government officials are not.
In 2004, Hurricane Frances revealed the tensions between these communities. The storm caused widespread damage to homes and power lines, and many farm workers relied on hot meals from relief agencies in the weeks that followed.
However, the town of Pierson ordered relief agencies to leave ahead of schedule to encourage fern cutters to return to work, according to newspaper accounts. This convinced the farm workers that they needed to be better prepared for disasters, according to Roberta Perry, a state organizer for the National Farm Worker Ministry.
“It was just sort of a community discussion — if we could take care of ourselves it would be better,” Perry recalls.
Perry helped the farm workers apply for funds to build the Community Disaster Center, and CWS provided them with $31,000 in 2007.
But more difficulties lay ahead. For several years, the Florida Farm Workers Association was unable to obtain a building permit from the Pierson Town Council. Although Pierson has fewer than 3,000 people, the council raised concerns that the building would create excessive traffic and demand for parking.
The council was often unable to vote on the issue because not enough members showed up for a meeting, Perry recalls. Church groups and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union began attending council meetings to support the building permit application.
Marcos Crisanto, a local coordinator for the Florida Farm Workers Association, says he found the town’s reluctance to issue a permit perplexing.
“It could be because of discrimination, it could be because of racism, I don’t know,” he said.
In 2010, the association finally obtained a permit to build the disaster center as an addition to their existing office, instead of as a separate building. It was a partial victory — but a victory nonetheless.
On Oct. 23, 2011, the association celebrated the completion of the Community Disaster Center with food, children’s dances and a blessing of dedication.
Joann Hale, a CWS Emergency Response Specialist, attended the event. She says that the project is a great example of how CWS helps communities prepare for emergencies.
“We give our money to communities so they can empower themselves and stand on their own two feet and take care of themselves after a disaster,” Hale says.