Poor Florida neighborhood battered by flood tries to recover

HARLEM HEIGHTS, Fla. (AP) — The Gladiolus Food Pantry usually hands out supplies on Wednesdays to about 240 families, so when Hurricane Ian swept through that day and canceled their distribution, it was left full of flats of canned black beans, bags of rice, meats, bread and produce — food that helps families struggling with rising rents and inflation make ends meet.

By the weekend, much of that food was in the garbage, the floors were still wet and muddy from the floodwaters that had filled the room, and the pantry’s founder and director, Miriam Ortiz, was worried about what would become of her neighborhood as she worked to get the pantry she started nine years ago up and running again.

“Right now I don’t know what we’re going to do because we’re going to need food, we’re going to need water, we’re going to need everything,” she said. “We got flooded and the water came through all the building.”

Ortiz said the food pantry’s green building is the heart of the Harlem Heights neighborhood, a small, mostly Hispanic community of nearly 2,000 people near Fort Myers that was hammered by the Category 4 hurricane. A sign scrawled on a piece of roofing that had torn loose advertised free food, diapers, wipes, body wash and toothpaste.

The wind, rain and storm surge that accompany hurricanes affect everyone in their path. But those combined effects are often more of a disaster for poor people living day to day, like many in Harlem Heights, where the median income is a little under $26,000, according to U.S. Census data.

Many are hourly workers with little savings for things such as evacuation hotel stays or money to tide them over until their places of employment reopen. In a tourism heavy economy like South Florida’s, the wait for hotels to reopen and visitors — along with the jobs they bring — to return can be long and agonizing.

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