I felt anxious asking disaster restoration workers to share their experiences with exposure to toxins such as asbestos, lead and mold on the job in New Orleans this past spring during a reporting trip.
The trip was at the heart of our project, Toxic Labor, which documents the hidden health impact workers face after prolonged exposure to ubiquitous toxins found in post-natural disasters worksites. Long after the news cycles move from covering the devastation left by hurricanes, wildfires and floods, workers who handle the ensuing cleanup often do not have access to personal protective equipment or safety training. I and colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity partnered with Columbia Journalism Investigations to investigate the issue. In our search to find restoration workers, who might be willing to talk about their experiences, we visited the places where they usually gather looking for work and frequent — laundromats, Latino supermarkets, food stands and churches – and posted fliers, seeking workers.
CJI fellow Janelle Retka and I made our first reporting stop in Fort Myers, Florida. As I spoke with dozens of workers, including many newly arrived immigrants, I realized there wasn’t enough time to delve into deep questions about conditions at work.
By the time I began to interview people in New Orleans, a city that’s homebase for many in this field, my anxiety started to lift when I met Jesus, a 58-year-old Katrina-era disaster restoration worker.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Guanajuato [Mexico] ” I said, smiling behind my mask.
“Donde la vida no vale nada [Where lives mean nothing],” he responded, reciting lyrics from the song “Caminos de Guanajuato” from beloved Mexican singer and songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez.
Laughter erupted. We had a moment of familiarity recognizing that while the song describes landmarks and festivals in my home state, it’s mostly about grief. Any tension at this point disappeared. And that’s exactly what we needed as we delved into his experiences cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), Matthew (2016), Harvey (2017), Laura (2020) and Ian (2021).
No federal or state data exists on how many disaster restoration workers get sick while cleaning up after hurricanes, floods and wildfires each year. Nor does any U.S. government body or advocacy organization track these workers’ exposures to dangerous toxins in post-disaster zones.
Months before Public Integrity joined the project, CJI fellows had been working with experts who provided guidance to create a questionnaire to collect data about this population and document prolonged exposure to dangerous toxins. The questionnaire asked about exposure to toxins and symptoms overtime, and whether workers had access to personal protective equipment and training.
As I prepared for the reporting trip, I read a 2009 report asserting the adverse impact on Latino laborers’ health after Katrina was “likely to be duplicated throughout the country” without oversight. That fueled my desire to continue documenting workers’ exposures and symptoms associated with toxins. When I returned home, I continued calling workers in the evenings and weekends.
And this was just the beginning: During the past nine months, I’ve interviewed 120 disaster restoration workers. At the end, I reached our team’s goal to document 100 interviews; nearly all said they had torn out drywall and busted up sheetrock following a climate disaster. Most worked at least three events over seven years — from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana (2005) to Hurricane Harvey in Texas (2017) and Hurricane Ian in Florida (2022) — across multiple worksites.
These workers are proud of what they do and say they like helping communities rebuild after the devastation. The stories I documented painted a picture of resilience and human spirit of people struggling to survive in a new country. New laws in Florida are making it harder for immigrants to work and make a living.
I heard stories of workers falling from roofs while working without a harness and other traumatic and physical harm workplace accidents that resulted in hospital visits and hospitalizations. At least three workers told me they had suffered head injuries that left them unconscious following a fall. Another worker shared that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer since he began doing this type of work while many others said they have asthma.
During these interviews, I also learned about the harassment and sexual violence women faced in their workplace. Others told me similar stories of contractors and subcontractors advertising cleanup work immediately after a natural disaster advertising good pay, lodging and transportation only to renege after workers arrive. I heard painful tales of contractors rushing workers and not providing basic personal protective equipment. Wage theft is so common in this industry that it became an incentive for the workers speaking with me – as workers hoped sharing their stories with a journalist could help recover back wages because they feel like they don’t have any other options.
And Latino men are no different from other hard-working laborers: They don’t talk about their health and they rarely seek medical support, especially if they don’t have health insurance. I knew the road ahead of me could be rocky if I didn’t take the right approach when talking to them. Trust is always the most important denominator when interviewing people who don’t know you or your values.
In New Orleans, we met with Mario Mendoza and Leticia Casildo, founders of the grassroots organization Familias Unidas en Acción. Mendoza was wary of our team’s intentions. He wanted to ensure we were listening and respecting workers. More importantly, he wanted us to acknowledge that we didn’t know their struggle, and thus, we needed to show respect and be humbled.
“How can someone come and tell me what I need? You don’t know what it’s like,” Mendoza told me. “If you haven’t lived it, you don’t know.”
After spending hours answering their questions, Mario and Leticia opened their doors. Since the workers trust them, they agreed to the in-person interviews – and many more follow-up calls.
Resilience Force, an advocacy organization formed after Hurricane Katrina, was instrumental in helping me connect with workers, too. Before the trip, Resilience Force organizers introduced us to workers. Once we got to New Orleans, I met Mariano, a kind Katrina-era restoration worker turned advocate. We spent an evening interviewing him and his older brother in his home. Our trust grew stronger following a difficult conversation about the use of an offensive Spanish word to describe a lesbian. He explained that he had never met a queer Latina woman and we laughed awkwardly about it before we parted ways. He became a key ally in helping us to connect with workers.
I will always be grateful for his kindness and contributions to this investigation.
As the work pushed forward, I had many discussions with my editor, Mc Nelly Torres, about how to do this work while upholding the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics admonition that journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” That’s why we agreed not to publish workers’ names and only use photos where workers are not identifiable.
We did rigorous fact-checking to verify their stories, including examination of photos, medical records, paychecks, payroll records, property records and other public documents. In the end, the team recorded 100 questionnaires and the end result provides a stark image of what workers are facing and the ongoing symptoms workers experience months and years after the cleanup work ends.
A third worked after Hurricane Katrina and most of them are proud builders. “You may not see their faces rebuilding New Orleans in history books,” they would tell me, “but Latinos rebuilt The Big Easy.”
“Ya somos parte de New Orleans,” Jesus told me in Spanish. “We are part of this city.”
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