Fremont resident Alex D’Caprio in front of his mobile home, which was red tagged as being unsafe. Utilities to his home were shut off. Photo by Hannah Stodolka.
By Elizabeth Rembert
Shirley Peng’s phone has been ringing off the hook in the weeks since Nebraska’s historic flooding. As the manager for the Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Disaster Relief Project, hundreds of people have been calling her for advice on how to put their lives back together amid flood damage.
Peng said many of these callers have been immigrants and refugees.
“When disaster happens some people have lost their entire homes or personal property. People have taken steps back because they have lost everything,” she said. “And in the immigrant community it definitely affects them even more.”
While countless Nebraskans are experiencing wet insulation and wrecked air conditioning systems, the state’s immigrant and refugee population have been acutely impacted by the floodwaters.
The majority of Crete’s damaged homes belonged to immigrants, Tom Ourada, the city’s administrator, said. Immigrants were also among the most-affected in areas where the flood hit hardest, like Dannebrog, Fremont, Columbus and Wood River, according to Audrey Lutz, the executive director for the Grand Island Multicultural Coalition.
Part of the disproportionate impact comes back to where the immigrants are living, Ourada said. All of the affected homes in Crete were on the city’s floodplains, and Ourada said many of the immigrants probably weren’t aware of that when they signed leases.
“By no fault of their own, immigrants are usually not well versed on floodplains,” he said. “So they go in and purchase homes, usually with cash. And when you’re dealing with cash, you don’t need to get the flood insurance that comes with a loan.”
He attributes many of the uninformed deals to predatory seller behavior, and the city has been trying to educate its residents on flood plain territory and insurance.
A city’s only affordable housing available for renting often will be built on a floodplain, according to Peng. The low-income tenants most likely spend money only on necessities and do not have the fluidity to insure their personal belongings that are still unprotected, even if a landlord has flood insurance.
Once the flood hit Nebraska’s immigrants in the floodplains, the lack of local support sets back their recovery, Peng said.
“When you don’t have what we think of as ‘just dealing with emergencies’ — staying with friends or family or using that fall-back credit card, the disaster can affect the vulnerable community much worse,” she said.
Dealing with bureaucracy in a second language presents another obstacle to recovery. Peng said immigrants struggle with navigating federal and state agencies, eligibility standards and even working with nonprofits trying to help.
On the ground
GraceHill Church, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran church in west Omaha, is among the nonprofits coming forward to help communities recover from the flood. Johnny Venegas is the church’s worship arts director, and traveled to Fremont with a group of volunteers.
The group visited houses around Fremont and saw the spectrum of the flood’s impacts. Some houses had floodlines on the doors, or damages to appliances or wet insulation.
“Some houses could be OK and then the one next to it would be really bad,” Venegas said.
He said the group helped Fremont’s residents by moving furniture, knocking down walls, taking out nails and insulation and cleaning the houses of debris.
The damage was the worst in the trailer park, where Venegas and his group saw the flood’s impacts on immigrants. The trailer houses — owned mostly by Hispanic immigrants — had sopping insulation and destroyed walls and appliances.
Venegas said the damages could be overlooked in language gaps. At one stop, his translation for the owner revealed that the house’s interior was wet, muddy and messy despite the exterior’s dry appearance.
The group arrived expecting a quick stop, but they spent the next few hours crawling under the trailer to rip out wet insulation and move debris.
“Translating bridged the gap for us to help them,” he said. “I felt like if I wasn’t there they would have just moved on and left the family with that all themselves. I feel like a lot of that is happening.”
Fear to ask for help
While Venegas was grateful to be able to help, the experience made him realize how many people could be falling through the cracks. He learned from the trailer park residents that many of their neighbors aren’t reaching out for help. As an immigrant from Chile himself who’s seen his friends’ parents deported, Venegas said he understood this hesitancy and “knows this fear.”
“People should be asking for help but some are scared because they are illegal and don’t want to put themselves out there,” he said. “It’s the fear that someone will do something to them, it’s the hesitancy with government aid because they feel like they don’t deserve help because they’re not supposed to be here.”
Legal status can completely change the way a person is able to adapt to the flood damages. Peng said the Trump administration has strengthened the “stigma of being brown” that tells people they’re here illegally and taking resources.
“That status pervades everything about life,” she said. “They’re living in the shadows already, and then they’ve lost everything — their workplace is gone, their home is gone. It’s just so much worse for that population.”
Lutz has been working with the Multicultural Coalition to spread information that can dispel any fear and help people overcome their hesitancy. She said although there’s not a clear answer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency if beneficiary information will be shared with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, all people should feel comfortable using local donations and volunteer efforts like Vengas’ with GraceHill.
Cultural and bureaucratic obstacles exist even for documented immigrants, according to Lutz. There’s a perception that people will disqualify themselves from citizenship or from hosting a family member by accepting public benefits, but she said this is inaccurate for non-governmental aid.
“It’s not founded in law or fact, just in fear,” Lutz said. “We are asked about our benefits all the time and we’re not even government. Now we’re just working to break through the stigma and put good facts in the hands of service providers.”
Efforts to help
Multicultural Coalition has been spreading information about public aid, providing resources and assessing damages in the weeks after the flood. At Legal Aid of Nebraska, Peng has also been working outreach to help immigrants know their rights in a disaster. She’s been guiding people through the processes to break their leases, get their security deposits returned and review flood insurance settlements.
“What communities need to be aware of is this will be a long process,” Lutz said. “Recovery is not quick, we’ll be looking for need for the next few years and continue to pay attention to the communities with higher concentrations of immigrants that have been affected.”
Venegas said some immigrants may have to start over in the process of establishing themselves in the United States. It might mean fresh houses, cars or a new job, but he said he knows they have the grit to overcome the flood.
“In some ways they would have to start all over again, but they are hard working so they will figure it out,” he said. “It might be a rough patch but they will eventually get back on their feet.”