Hurricane Maria, One Year Later: Exodus Strained CT, But Families And Service Providers Still Resilient
Hartford Courant, September 24, 2018
By Matthew Ormseth
Connecticut was not lashed by cyclonic winds or swamped with flash floods. But the state staggered under the weight of thousands who, left without homes or prospects, journeyed to Connecticut, hoping to find some relief among relatives or the civic groups and churches that have for decades underpinned the state’s Puerto Rican community, one of the largest and most established on the U.S. mainland. The anniversary was marked by a vigil in Hartford Thursday evening.
School systems grappled with new students who spoke no English and suffered from trauma. State agencies wrangled with an overdrawn stock of affordable housing, trying to find apartments the displaced families could actually afford. Connecticut’s delegation in Washington lobbied the federal government to extend a temporary shelter program that billeted hundreds of families in hotels.
A study commissioned by the Hartford Foundation estimated that more than 13,000 people came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. One of the study’s authors, Charles Venator-Santiago, a professor of political science and Latin American studies at UConn, stressed that a true gauge of the exodus to Connecticut is elusive.
“The first question everybody asks me is: How many Puerto Ricans came?” he said at a forum hosted by UConn Health. “I don’t know. We only have estimates.”
Venator-Santiago tapped data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the postal service, state agencies and airline records, arriving at an estimate of 13,292 Puerto Ricans who left their island for Connecticut. His findings offered a dire portrait of the displaced, many of whom are struggling with basic needs like housing, food and healthcare.
The study polled roughly 1,300 people who left Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands after last year’s hurricane season; of them, 70 percent said they make less than $30,000 a year. Many of the families have left for other states or returned to Puerto Rico after coming to a stark conclusion, Venator-Santiago said: “Connecticut is too expensive.”
“We weren’t ready for something like this, and I don’t know why,” said Aura Alvarado, director of communications and community relations for the Capitol Region Education Council, or CREC, which for several months ran a hurricane relief center out of a former high school on Van Dyke Avenue. Alvarado said the mosaic of nonprofits, state and municipal agencies, religious groups and federal aid that has come to serve the displaced families did not quickly or easily come together.
Dealing with the federal government “was like Fort Knox,” said Joel Cruz, director of Catholic Charities’ Institute for the Hispanic Family. “So and so had to talk to so and so, who had to talk to so and so. It was an everlasting chain of command, and we could never connect with who we needed to connect with.”
Temporary shelters discontinued back to top
Last Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency discontinued a temporary shelter program for displaced Puerto Ricans. At its high water mark, 187 families in Connecticut were supported by the hotel program, called Transitional Housing Assistance. The program was extended several times, in some instances days before it was due to expire. When it ended last week, 38 families were relying on the assistance, according to FEMA. Some have since moved into apartments; others are living in churches, shelters, with friends, or are simply unaccounted for.
Emmanuel Rivera Mulero, whose home in Bayamon was destroyed by Maria, was living in a hotel when FEMA cut the temporary shelter program. Mulero, 38, first moved into a church in downtown Hartford, then an apartment. Of the 38 households living in hotels when the FEMA program ended last Friday, Mulero is among 13 who’ve since moved into their own apartments, according to figures from Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office.
“Thank God I have an apartment I can call home,” he said. “I can look up and say, ‘Thank you God for allowing me to move forward.’”
The flow of people leaving Puerto Rico hasn’t broken off — nor, service providers say, is it expected to. As the power grid remains unreliable, as the jobless stay jobless, Connecticut can expect more Puerto Ricans to leave the island behind, said Bergeron, the adviser to the state’s emergency department.
A year later, many of those students are still here, and some district leaders say the $10.6 million in federal money allotted to Connecticut to cover thier needs is inadeuate.
Connecticut’s schools absorbed 2,043 new students last year who were displaced by hurricanes, most of them Puerto Ricans. In August, the state received $10.6 million in federal dollars to teach students displaced by Hurricane Maria; on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education awarded another $284,068 to Connecticut school districts with students from storm-damaged regions.
But local school leaders say the aid is inadequate, that the unanticipated costs of teaching so many new children, many of whom do not speak English, outstrips whatever federal dollars they’ve received.
On Thursday evening, a crowd gathered on the corner of Park and Babcock Streets, outside the El Mercado Marketplace that anchors the heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood. They came with Puerto Rican flags, some in black and white, some bearing the hurricane’s death toll — more than 3,000 people, according to a study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government that President Trump has questioned.
The group lit candles, prayed, and marched down Park Street. Faces emerged from the stores and restaurants and bars that line the street, wondering what the commotion was about. When they realized it was a rally for Puerto Ricans, both the living and the dead, they clapped and cheered.
“We’re walking in the steps of leaders before us, who marched to be treated equally, for housing rights, for bilingual education in our schools,” said Wildaliz Bermudez, a Hartford councilwoman. “We’re marching in step with our ancestors, with our heroes.”