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A year after Hurricane Maria, residents displaced from Puerto Rico still adjusting to life in Meriden

Editor’s note: This story includes reporting from Meriden and Puerto Rico. There’s no relation between the author and Johanna Roman.

MERIDEN — Johanna Roman, a bilingual tutor at Maloney High School, never expected to leave her home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She remembers the day nearly a year ago that Hurricane Maria ravaged the island with high winds and torrential rain.

Roman, speaking in Spanish, said she has lived through hurricanes before, but Hurricane Maria was unlike anything she’d ever seen. During the storm, she decided to stay with her sister because she lives on the second floor of a building, but they still experienced flooding.

“It came in through the windows. So much water came in,” Roman said during an interview in Meriden last week. “All of us with towels, drying and drying and we got tired. We went to the living room and waited until it passed.”

Roman said even after her experience during the hurricane she never considered leaving the island. But after waiting months for assistance, she realized help would not arrive. That’s when she decided to leave.

“We understood that it was a crisis but I think that they took too long,” Roman said. “I think that in a crisis they could have resources in a week, maybe even one month. But it was months, months without power, months without water.”

Roman said because resources on the island were scarce, food and gasoline purchases were rationed. She had to wait in line for eight hours to buy gasoline, which was limited to $20 worth. Roman said typically $10 worth will provide four hours of power from a gas generator.

“My father who is 80 years old, who had a heart operation, also had to make the line,” Roman said.

In San Juan, numerous blue tarps could still be seen speckled across homes in the city during a visit this reporter made in mid-July — a sign of roof damage yet to be repaired. Fallen light poles and billboards lay untouched since the storm. The conditions in towns farther inland were often much worse because of either geographical challenges or the remoteness.

In Utuado, roughly 35 minutes from Arecibo, houses are built on top of hills or sometimes into the mountains. In addition to flooding, the people of Utuado faced multiple landslides that left some homes buried in the mountainside. Some residents had no choice but to live in their basements because their homes were severely damaged. Other homes were simply abandoned.

Roman said she knows people from Meriden who said they sent food to Puerto Rico, but food did not arrive for her and her family. She said she knew she had to try to find a job elsewhere out of concern for her 3-year-old granddaughter.

It was then that Roman decided to leave. She sold her home and left with only a few personal belongings. On Nov. 15, she arrived in Connecticut, with no coat, and “started from zero.” She went to agencies like New Opportunities and The Salvation Army to begin to rebuild her life. While living on government assistance and the generosity of others, Roman began looking for a job.

“With Maria I didn’t expect to leave because I have to help the family,” Roman said. But “as a professional, I was the one who could leave… the easiest thing for me was to leave, find work and help” the family.

Roman taught in Puerto Rico for 11 years, including six years teaching technology education at a private college. But despite her prior experience, finding a job in Puerto Rico was difficult. She applied for a bilingual tutor position at Maloney High School in December and started working in January. Roman continues to work at Maloney with students from different Spanish speaking countries and some from Puerto Rico. 

“There is so many opportunities for those kids,” Roman said. “I have felt there like we’ve known each other for years.” 

‘A traumatic event’ 

In the weeks following Hurricane Maria, an additional 125 students from Puerto Rico enrolled in Meriden schools, according to Assistant Superintendent Miguel Cardona. That number peaked in April with 165 displaced Puerto Rican students enrolled. Cardona said as of this academic school year there are 85 students.

In August, the U.S. Department of Education granted funding for school districts that took in displaced students from Puerto Rico. Cardona said the allotment of federal funding will offset the number of bilingual staff and tutors hired to teach these students.

Bilingual Speech and Language Pathologist Marjorie Eager said language is only one of the many challenges she has faced as an educator when working with her students. Eager said students arrive with different skill levels in Spanish, English, reading and math. She said some of her students may have special needs or learning disabilities.

“They just went through a traumatic event,” Eager said. “They were displaced, they moved here after going through trauma, but for some it’s exciting (to be in Meriden) because it’s a new place.”

Eager, along with Mariah Abatan, a second grade bilingual teacher, taught a class last year that was made up of third, fourth, and fifth grade students directly impacted by Hurricane Maria. Both teachers went to Sweden in July as part of the Fund for Teachers fellowship program. They received training specifically in how to work with immigrant and refugee children and how to integrate them into a new school setting.

“It’s important to develop a community in the classroom,” Abatan said. “There’s an emotional component too… They understand that it’s OK to feel different emotions in the day.”

 Abatan said this year the classroom is made up of students from various Spanish speaking countries along with students from Puerto Rico. She said the goal is to have a safe learning environment and for the students not to feel isolated.

Roman has four children. Two of her daughters are completing university degrees in Puerto Rico. She lives in Meriden with another daughter, her son, his wife and their 3-year-old son. Roman said her family in Meriden is small now but is coming together piece by piece.

Roman said she misses Puerto Rico. She misses her family still there, she misses the food, and doesn’t like the cold, but she has decided to stay in Meriden for now.

She said she won’t go back because she understands there are more opportunities for her in Meriden. She said she communicates with her family regularly and that more are considering a move to Meriden.

“I miss the island in a sense that is patriotic, I can’t deny that,” Roman said. “But the truth is that the opportunities are here.”

Twitter: @JenieceRoman

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