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Brought by Katrina, migrants see cleanup jobs from Gustav

David Ovalle
McClatchy Newspapers

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina brought them here. Gustav didn't drive them away.

And storms will likely keep them here.

Arturo Torrecillo, 43, and Juan Cruz, 24, migrant laborers drawn to the city for the post-Katrina reconstruction rode out their first New Orleans hurricane in a friend's sweltering Lower Garden District efficiency apartment.

Between them, they had two battered bicycles, two gallons of water and no food. Rain and gusts pelted them through the screen door of the tiny, moldy living room.

"We're going to stay. There will be a lot more work after this storm," said Torrecillo, a carpenter from Veracruz, Mexico, who has been in New Orleans eight months.

He thought about where the storm was hitting, which is where the next jobs are likely to be. "Maybe out west. Morgan City."

With his shirt off and a backpack for a pillow, Torrecillo rubbed his scarred right ankle, where a bullet wound is a lifelong reminder of his time in the Mexican army. As Gustav sent rain sheeting down outside their door, Torrecillo and Cruz — pals linked by country, work and circumstance — passed the time imagining the steady flow of work they'd have once the winds subsided.

Like the 10,000-plus Hispanic workers who flocked to New Orleans after Katrina, the pair saw Monday's wind-swept landscape as a new round of opportunity for wages earned, money sent back home.

"I have a wife and 5-year-old child back home," said Cruz, a roofer from Oaxaca, Mexico. "I get to talk to (my son) about three, four times a month."

The number of migrant workers like Torrecillo and Cruz who ignored the call to evacuate is unknown. Officials have said they feared migrant workers, undocumented, would refuse cooperation for fear of deportation. In the day prior to Gustav, they made a concerted effort to reach people like Torrecillo and Cruz, who are both undocumented.

Emergency managers conducted Spanish-language interviews on TV and radio. The Red Cross printed Spanish instructions on evacuation maps. New Orleans' Catholic Charities included printable Spanish evacuation plans on its website and a page of "hurricane prep tips for the Hispanic community."

Juan Munoz Torres, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, told McClatchy that his agency has tried to let the migrant community know that no one would ask about immigration status.

With thousands of residents without power, radio stations in the storm zones were key sources of information for most — unless you speak Spanish. The two Spanish stations - KLGA-1540 AM and WFNO-830AM — could not be heard Monday.

Torrecillo and Cruz wouldn't have listened anyway. Though their bosses had evacuated and their $650-a-month apartment building was vacant, they stayed because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to get back into the city once they evacuated. With no cars or surplus money, who would arrange to return them to their homes and job?

"I didn't know what to do. Without money, who is going to take you back?" Torrecillo said.

Cruz, skinny and bare-chested, said he just wanted to keep working. "I'm used to it here. Not that I like it. I guess I'm just used to the work."

Outside, the wind howled briefly, swaying their bicycles on kickstands outside.

Torrecillo rolled over and turned to his friend. He prefers Mexico but took a bus to New Orleans when he heard about the work.

"They said this place was beautiful but it's a disgrace. Just downtown is nice,"

Torrecillo said. "They'll rob you. They'll kill you for a dollar. A lot of guys they rob of their bicycles."

Torrecillo spent 14 years in the Mexican army before a bullet during a firefight with drug dealers ended his career. An army helmet entwined with a parachute is inked on his left arm. His $200-a-month pension goes to his family back home.

Burly and dark with a black-and-silver goatee, vitiligo, a skin disease, has left splotches under his eyes like pinkish white raccoon eyes.

He crossed the border 13 years ago and made a life in Virginia — met his wife, had two children, started a carpentry business. It failed. His wife and children still live in Virginia.

Cruz grew up in the fishing town of Puerto Escondido. He spent three years in music school as a teen, playing saxophone in a local ballad bands. Nine years ago, he followed his cousin to the United States.

Gustav was neither man's first hurricane — Torrecillo experienced several in Mexico, Cruz rode out Hurricane Charley in 2004 when he worked as an orange picker in Southwest Florida. And as long the work remains, Gustav won't be their last.

Ovalle is a staff writer for The Miami Herald.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008
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