In late May, two months into Michigan’s stay at home order, the state faced the first major climate disaster of the COVID-19 era. The Edenville and Sanford dams were breached in Michigan after heavy rains caused the floodwaters to exceed 33.9 feet, a record set in 1986 that was previously known as the “the worst natural disaster in the state’s modern history.” The breaching of the dams forced 10,000 people to evacuate the city of Midland.
In response, roughly 150 mostly immigrant workers from Florida and Texas arrived in Midland to repair the MidMichigan Medical Center, whose basement had flooded, with some workers continuing on to work in Indiana.
These workers were hired by a Texas-based company, BTN LLC (“Back to New”), owned by a man named Alejandro Fernandez. In Michigan, BTN operated as a hiring agent or subcontractor of a franchise of SERVPRO, a leading disaster restoration company.
As has happened elsewhere when workers have been crowded into employer-provided housing, shared employer-provided transportation, and not been allowed to socially distance or provided with personal protective equipment on the jobsite, a large COVID-19 outbreak spread among the workers, with dozens of cases confirmed. In defiance of public health guidance and Michigan’s executive orders, the companies created dangerous conditions that put the health of resilience workers and the community they had come to rebuild at risk.
At the beginning of the 2020 hurricane season—a season that is predicted to be especially active—what has happened at Midland is a preview of what the summer could entail, with crisis compounding crisis, unless new standards are created and enforced that protect both workers and communities from Covid-19 in post-disaster zones.
Saket Soni, Resilience Force staff and resilience workers across Florida show how immigrant workers are on the front lines of climate disasters: making recovery possible and rebuilding America.