MERIDEN — Alondra Perez, 12, fixes her ski hat and fidgets in the case manager’s hallway at Casa Boricua while her mother waits to sign up for services.
Her mother, Jessenia Bermudez, left Puerto Rico 10 days ago with Alondra and step brother Adian Cruz, 14. The children are ready to start school at Lincoln Middle School and Platt High School. The family is staying with Bermudez’s father-in-law in Meriden for the time being.
The family is one of more than 50 that arrived in the city after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico in September. With no electricity and drinkable water in short supply, educators and administrators are expecting more families to arrive in the weeks to come.
Last week, the school district reported 41 new students from Puerto Rico. By this week, there were at least 10 more.
“The families coming from Puerto Rico have family in Connecticut,” said Elsie Torres-Brown, the school district’s bilingual program director. “We’re directly connected to the health department and the schools.”
Casa Boricua, which has been collecting and shipping donations to Puerto Rico, opened its doors to community activists, educators and state and national lawmakers Tuesday to learn more about how best to handle the devastation to family and friends still on the island and the arrival of new refugees.
Connecticut is among the top three states Puerto Rican refugees will move to, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty told the group. Esty, who represents the 5th Congressional District, said her district is 12th in the U.S. for the number of people who identify as Puerto Rican — roughly 75,000 people. The district is also second in the state for Puerto Rican population, she said.
Esty is frustrated with the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico and has supported bills that would forgive $16 billion to cancel its debt, and add $1.27 billion for SNAP and supplemental requests, such as debris removal to allow relief supplies to move beyond the docks and into the rural mountain villages.
“There are a lot of complexities, a lot of different pieces,” Esty said. “I have been advocating for suspension of cost sharing for Puerto Rico. It was suspended for Texas and Florida but not for Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.”
Esty supports adjustments to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act which enables the president to allocate federal disaster assistance to states and territories. While states and territories are required to share in the cost of the disaster assistance, the requirement may be amended or waived in circumstances where a state or territory would be unduly burdened. Texas cost sharing requirements were waived on Sept. 2. Esty said she would like to see a similar waiver for Puerto Rico.
Areas in need of rebuilding, such as Houston and Puerto Rico, need infrastructure that is resilient, cyber-secure and can withstand climate change risk, she said.
“You’re taking tax dollars out of Connecticut,” Esty said. “We are a donor state. It’s perfectly reasonable to say how it’s being spent. It needs to be done in a smarter, safer way. This has to be part of a much larger conversation.”
Esty sits on the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology and is a vice ranking member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. She is also pushing corporations with locations on Puerto Rico to invest in rebuilding efforts. Esty also wants federal dollars for cities that are receiving families and children.
“People forget that we are seeing that in the schools,” Esty said about the exodus off the island. “I want to get funding to assist schools that are receiving these children. It can also be used in Connecticut and elsewhere where we are receiving families.”
School teachers and administrators in Meriden are in conversations about the influx of students and the resulting space and staff needs. The district is also working with Casa Boricua and other community groups on housing, clothing, food and other needs the families may have, said Torres-Brown and Marisol Estrada, a Board of Education member.
“The need is not going to go away,” Estrada said.
Casa Boricua Executive Director Anabel Beltran Roman meets with new families from Puerto Rico every day while gathering donations for family members left on the island. The meeting Tuesday helped leaders organize storage, drop off and transportation logistics in addition to connecting with receivers on the island who can help with distribution.
Hanover School in South Meriden is one of four designated schools to house the bilingual program. Principal Jennifer Kelley is in talks with Torres-Brown and other educators about making adjustments for incoming students.
“We want to make sure they are very welcome and their families,” Kelley said. “It’s important because they have gone through so much.”
The school psychologist and other staff members have received training for recognizing and handling trauma. After experiencing 30 hours of deadly wind and rains, many of the children and their families faced weeks of despair.
“The relatives are bringing them back here,” Torres-Brown said. “We had one mom who literally came with only the clothes on her back. It’s not only education needs, it’s backpacks and coats.”
After initial flights out of the island were shut down, more flights were rescheduled. Families leaving the island now are flying on tickets bought online by city residents, Torres-Brown said, because many on the island still don’t have access to their money.
One family came to the school district’s bilingual department on Miller Street straight from Bradley International Airport. At the center, students are given a language test and evaluated. Those in need of English skills are placed in the bilingual programs at Hanover, Thomas Hooker, Lincoln Middle School and Maloney High School. In some Puerto Rican schools, English is taught with Spanish, while in others English isn’t taught as much.
“A lot depends on were they were in Puerto Rico,” Torres-Brown said. “We have students at the most basic level, and some who probably need only one year of bi-lingual education.”
Hanover School has enrolled at least eight new students since the hurricane, with five more expected by next week.
Second-grade teacher Robert Lorenzo’s bilingual class of 13 students learned how to properly dissect and annunciate words for Tuesday’s English lesson. He has received at least one new student since the storm.
“Are you ready for a hard one?” Lorenzo asked the students. “I want you to write it on your board: children.”