Immigrants Are Important for Disaster Reconstruction

Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast yesterday. The strongest part of the storm focused its wrath on coastal cities, ravaging New York, Atlantic City, Ocean City, and others in the storm’s path. In the coming days, focus will turn from rescuing people to rebuilding the devastated areas.

Immigrant workers, especially in the building trades, are an essential component of any reconstruction. People living in places hit by Sandy are going to demand an influx of laborers to rebuild and replace their destroyed property.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama left their homes behind. For many from New Orleans, Houston became their new home. In contrast, around 100,000 immigrant workers quickly moved into the Gulf Coast area to take advantage of the labor market opportunities offered by the reconstruction in the aftermath of Katrina.

Many Americans also moved into the Gulf Coast region to rebuild with the immigrants. But in the year prior to Hurricane Katrina, Hispanic immigrant workers accounted for about 40 percent of the total growth in the construction sector-–the majority of whom were unauthorized immigrants. A year after the rebuilding began in New Orleans, an estimated quarter of all construction workers were unauthorized immigrants.

A tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in April 2011 left 43 dead and tore a path almost a mile wide through the city. Immigrant Hispanic workers in Alabama responded with alacrity. “Hispanics, documented and undocumented, dominate anything to do with masonry, concrete, framing, roofing, and landscaping,” said Bob McNelly, a contractor with Nash-McCraw Properties. Three months after the tornado, Tuscaloosa issued 1069 business licenses with 81 percent of them related to businesses repairing storm damaged.

There is no economic silver lining to a disaster, despite what The New York Times thinks, but fortunately there is a mobile workforce capable of responding to natural disasters to aid in reconstruction. After dealing with the Tuscaloosa reconstruction, McNelly said that he prefers Hispanic immigrants workers. “It’s not the pay rate. It’s the fact that they work harder than anyone. It’s the work ethic,” he said.

Immigrant workers are the economic early responders to natural disasters. They are typically younger so they do not own houses and mortgages tying them down to certain areas. As a result, they move quickly based on labor market demands allowing reconstruction to start quicker and complete faster. Immigrant workers, mostly Hispanics in the building trades, will flock along with others to the areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy. As in previous natural disasters, they will be an important component of any rebuilding.