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Latino Workers on the Forefront of Sandy Recovery Efforts

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The first wave of destruction unleashed by Superstorm Sandy overwhelmed our senses with the fury of its wind and the rage of its surging waters.

The second one, though, is a quiet yet potentially lethal menace: Sandy covered the devastated landscapes of the New York and New Jersey coastlines with poisonous layers of chemicals, raw sewage and the perennial threat of mold.

And who is on the front line, dealing with Sandy's toxic legacy? It's thousands of Latino migrant laborers, most of them undocumented, eager to take any job available, who have flocked to the region on account of the huge demand for reconstruction labor. Only a small minority of them, however, is even aware of the great risks they run by exposing themselves to this toxic threat.

The scene of this heartbreaking drama seems to be the work of some deranged artist. Sandy's retreating floodwaters left behind a lethal cocktail of chemical pollutants, such as motor oil and antifreeze; farm runoff, including pesticides and herbicides, and raw sewage that can contain countless disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Moreover -- and this is the most pressing danger weeks after the catastrophe -- the homes and other structures hit by the storm, or whatever is left of them, are covered by noxious mold that can proliferate on any surface that has been in contact with floodwater.

According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, exposure to mold can lead to allergies and irritation in the upper airway, asthma attacks, skin infections and even brain damage. Children exposed to mold are up to four times more likely to contract asthma.

Latino workers' contribution to reconstruction after our national catastrophes is nothing new. But in too many cases, their reward has been exploitation, devastating health problems or both.

After the 9/11 attacks, thousands of cleanup workers, mostly Latinos, toiled for weeks in Ground Zero unaware of the toxic substances that surrounded them, especially the white dust that covered everything. Today, hundreds of these workers are dead or terminally ill. The deplorable conditions they worked under no doubt contributed to their health problems.

Four years later, some 100,000 Latino migrant workers, again mostly undocumented, rushed to the Gulf Coast lured by promises of abundant, well-paying jobs to clean up and reconstruct after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. What they encountered in too many instances was rampant corruption and crooked contractors who refused to compensate them for their hard work.

It remains to be seen whether we've learned our lessons, but there are definitely positive signs coming from the Obama administration in Sandy's aftermath. Secretary of Labor Linda Solís visited migrant workers in Staten Island to express her concern about their wellbeing and to avoid "past mistakes."

"We want to know where there are problems, so we can find solutions," said Solís. "Don't be afraid to call us. Everything is confidential, and we are here to protect."

This mobile labor force "works harder than anyone else," in the words of a contractor from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And the least they deserve is human, decent treatment, and we hope the administration will make sure that happens.

We also hope that President Obama fulfills his recent promise to tackle the root cause of Sandy and so many other natural catastrophes: climate disruption. Sandy's rage has awakened the consciences of millions who doubted the reality of climate change, and invigorated a collective conviction to act.

Polls show the overwhelming majority of us Latinos accepted climate science well before Sandy hit, and we consider climate disruption a reality that we must confront. We know this is true, because we are in the front line.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist.

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