One year later, evacuees from Puerto Rico still face challenges

One year later, evacuees from Puerto Rico still face challenges

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Nearly a year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, many residents who remained and others who evacuated face uncertain futures. 

The storm, which made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, destroyed roughly 75,000 homes and damaged an additional 300,000, wiped out the island’s power grid, and left its infrastructure in shambles. 

Government officials at all levels were pressed into action after hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans eventually fled for shelter across the U.S. 

At its peak, 13,000 residents came to Connecticut alone, 1,700 of them children who enrolled in local schools. Meriden accepted 169 new students. 

Meriden City Councilor Miguel Castro worked with staff to post information on the city’s website on efforts in Puerto Rico and resources available in Meriden.

“In Meriden, our local agencies have been on the forefront of great initiatives and have been actively helping Puerto Rico and new families arriving to the city of Meriden,” said Castro. 

Some Puerto Ricans have returned home, but others say they are staying for at least the foreseeable future. The federal government has allocated $7.6 million to Connecticut to help school districts with the added costs. Meriden is expected to receive more than $800,000. 

The state legislature also kicked in $500,000 for various services. Meriden’s Casa de Boricua received $40,000. 

State Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, said Puerto Rican lawmakers had to push for the funding, explaining that many evacuees were returning to hurricane relief centers multiple times. 

“The families just didn’t come in once,” she said. “They came in four, five, six times. We had families coming back seven or eight times. We had to find the money.”

Families were in need of more than coats and warm clothing. They needed medical care, translation services, help enrolling children in school and filling out applications for food and housing. 

State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, credited the community for donating clothes, school supplies, and other necessities.

“We are a community with a big heart,” he said. “The effort is not over, it’s still being delivered.” 

Housing continues to be the biggest challenge.   

 “People were moving in with families and then landlords said ‘you have to move out,” said Santiago, whose district includes the inner city. “If they went on a public housing list, their names went to the bottom.”

Critics say the Trump Administration did more to help residents in Texas and Florida, affected by hurricanes Hugo and Irma, respectively, than it did for Puerto Rico. 

“These basic necessities should have been provided to fellow Americans in Puerto Rico,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said. “The agencies should be held accountable for these needless senseless deaths.”

The response to Maria has led lawmakers and the Government Accountability Office to re-evaluate the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to natural disasters. 

Trump has defended aid to Puerto Rico, calling it “an incredible, unsung success.” But the response, coupled with his claim that no more than 18 people died as a result of Maria, drew more criticism. 

“Trump was negligent in responding to Maria,” U.S. Sen Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said. “He threw paper towels, he blamed the people of Puerto Rico. It was a disaster.”

The initial official death toll was stated as 64, but researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University last month reported 2,975 deaths in the six months following the storm. 

Much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was in poor shape even before Maria. A total of $3.8 billion in aid included funding to restore power to the island, but officials said in May that Puerto Rico’s public electric authority, the nation’s largest, is almost certain to collapse again when the next hurricane hits the island of 3.3 million people, according to the Associated Press.

The devastation means that many Puerto Rican evacuees plan to stay in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. 

Some face uncertain housing situations — the Associated Press reported earlier this week that a Friday deadline meant the end of FEMA vouchers for hundreds of evacuees. 

FEMA has denied treating Puerto Ricans differently than aid recipients in Florida and Texas, and has said it provided a range of housing options to those who fled the devastation of Maria. 

Further complicating recovery efforts was Puerto Rico’s shoddy land records, which made it difficult for FEMA to assess property damage and try to help homeowners. 

Santiago still has family on the island without electricity in the town of Naranjito. She said property was verbally willed from generation to generation and rarely challenged. 

The island received a $100 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to do several things; record the oral history of property transfers to create titles and to repair abandoned homes for people who are displaced.

Blumenthal has drafted legislation with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, that would rebuild Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands in a way that “empowers them to thrive.” The bill, modeled after the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II, has Democratic support in both the House and the Senate and would cost $146 billion. 

The plan would instruct the federal government to mobilize all  resources and assets to restore power, provide clean drinking water and food, safe shelter, and access to health care. It would eliminate the territories’ debt without forcing them to take on more.  The plan also calls for rebuilding energy efficient power supplies, schools, hospitals and investment in infrastructure to spur economic development. 

“The devastating effects of this historic natural disaster call for a historic response,” Blumenthal said. “Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands must rebuild with resilience to better withstand future disasters, and we must meet our moral obligation to help fellow American citizens in need.”


Twitter: @Cconnbiz

Morning Record looks at Hurricane Maria recovery one year later