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Some Tampa Bay Latino families struggle to prepare for Ian

A major hurricane adds a burden for these families, who can’t afford hurricane shutters or even plywood.
Sem Melo, 40, said hurricane season is a nightmare for families with only one household income.
"Our destiny often depends on how lucky we are,” he said as he prepped his house for Hurricane Ian on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.
Sem Melo, 40, said hurricane season is a nightmare for families with only one household income. "Our destiny often depends on how lucky we are,” he said as he prepped his house for Hurricane Ian on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Sep. 27|Updated Sep. 27

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

RIVERVIEW — Sem Melo installed some used wood beams to protect the windows of his mobile home on Tuesday in this Hillsborough County community.

He knows it may be futile, but at least he’s doing something, said the 40-year-old dishwasher.

“Plywood is expensive and I don’t have that money,” he said.

Related: Ian now Category 3, on its way near Tampa Bay as major hurricane

Hurricane shutters can cost up to $6,500, with a national average of $4,300. The price includes labor, which runs between $35 and $100 an hour, and materials that can range from $5 to $60 per square foot.

A major hurricane like Ian adds burden and stress on many Latinos and other low-income families, who are struggling to afford the basics. For them, plywood or hurricane shutters are a luxury.

Melo works in a Japanese restaurant 10 hours per day, six days a week. He washes dishes and helps in the kitchen. He’s a father of five children, ages 1 to 16.

Related: As others evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ian, Al drives for Uber

He recently moved into his mobile home with his wife and children. The Mexican father was trying to raise money a year ago to cover the deposit and at least two months of rent. But it was difficult: His entire family contracted COVID-19, and their only car broke down months ago and required $800 in repairs.

Melo said hurricane season is a nightmare for families with only one household income.

Sam Melo recently moved into his mobile home with his wife and children in rural Riverview. On Tuesday he was installing some used, wood beams to protect the windows of his mobile home.
Sam Melo recently moved into his mobile home with his wife and children in rural Riverview. On Tuesday he was installing some used, wood beams to protect the windows of his mobile home. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

“Our destiny often depends on how lucky we are,” he said. “For us it is a different story because we cannot go to buy groceries. We don’t have credit cards to use during an emergency.”

Related: How to safeguard your home ahead of a hurricane

Carmen Galarza and her husband, Miguel Ramos, have a very similar situation. She works at a community nonprofit in Wimauma, Monday through Friday. On the weekends, she runs a small family baking business that helps to cover just a small percentage of her monthly $1,200 mortgage.

On Tuesday, Galarza was working with her children to clean up some areas around her mobile home. Her husband is a COVID-19 survivor. He has trouble moving and sleeping. He still suffers from fatigue and shortness of breath.

“It is a situation that is out of our hands,” said Galarza. “We have this house and we do our best to protect it.”

Thinking about installing shutters is out of her budget. Her husband was laid off in December, and the medical bills never stopped.

“We work day by day, and we have different priorities,’’ said Galarza, 40.

Mariangely Torres, a 27-year-old nail technician in Riverview, underwent emergency gallbladder surgery a year ago. Her recovery was painful and slow. She lost her job and was three months behind paying rent on her Brandon mobile home.

Now that she has recovered, she was able to return to work five days a week at a nail salon on East Busch Boulevard.

Hurricane Ian, she said, is too much for her and her husband to deal with. They were planning to stay at her sister-in-law’s apartment in Brandon, along with their two Chihuahuas.

“We have decided to leave the house, at least for a few days. It is not safe, you know? It’s a mobile home and, as a Puerto Rican, I have learned my lesson very well,” said Torres. Disasters like Hurricane Maria and the more recent Fiona that devastated the island are not far from her mind.

Related: ‘Reliving trauma’: Tampa’s Puerto Rican community responds to Fiona

For her, thinking about installing hurricane shutters is a fantasy.

“We can only pray, follow the news and wait for all this to end sooner than later.”

Resources in Spanish

Pinellas County:

http://www.pinellascounty.org/emergency/PDF/All_Hazard_Guide_Spanish.pdf

Hernando County: Officials said Spanish speakers can call the Public Information Center at (352) 754-4083 where they can connect with an interpreter.

Pasco County: https://content.civicplus.com/api/assets/9cf51ef5-253b-4950-a388-b33cdd7fb67d

Tampa: City’s emergency text service is available in Spanish by texting TAMPALISTA to 888–777.

Hillsborough County: HCFLGov.net in Spanish or call (813) 272-5900 or visit:

https://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/library/hillsborough/media-center/documents/emergency-management/hillsborough-disaster-planning-guide-espanol.pdf

Related: Ian is near Tampa Bay. Here’s how the area fared in other storms.

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.

SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.

IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.

DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.

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