According to Puerto Rico’s government’s website status.pr, only 17% of Puerto Rico’s residents have electricity and only 64% have water. As Puerto Rico continues to struggle in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, organizations on the mainland are preparing for the unexpected relocation of family and friends to the states. As many as 200,000 of the 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico could resettle in states where they have family ties, including Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania, according to Dr. Edwin Meléndez, Director of Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños and a member of UnidosUS’s Executive Committee of the Board of Directors.
UnidosUS Affiliates are leading work to help families make a smooth transition to the states. Latino Leadership in Orlando, Florida was among the first to bring our attention to these families’ needs, and is spearheading efforts to support those who arrive in Orlando, where they expect as many as 100,000 from the island. Through a partnership with the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Latino Leadership established the Puerto Rico Family Response Center at the Orlando airport, in order to help reunify families in Florida, and provide adequate services to help them transition and restart their lives. This partnership brings together a unique network of resources as well as the support and trust of the Latino community in Florida.
“The despair arriving at the Orlando International Airport daily is devastating. Families are arriving with nothing. They’ve lost their hopes and dreams in Puerto Rico. Our Puerto Rico Family Response Center is helping piece lives back together one family at a time by providing them referrals for clothing, food, health care, school enrollment, and other services. Housing is our greatest need and it’s in short supply in Orlando,” said Marucci Guzman, Executive Director, Latino Leadership.
While many will remain in Florida, others will seek assistance through family, friends, and organizations, like Latino Leadership, in other parts of the country. Over the past couple of days, we have heard from other UnidosUS Affiliates preparing to assist those Americans who decide to relocate to the mainland. For example, APM (Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha) in Philadelphia, and Ibero-American Action League in Rochester, New York, will provide families who arrive in the area with assistance in job searches, emergency housing, English classes, and other services. Rick Olmos, Director of Communications and External Affairs at APM indicated that although they’ve only received inquiries from two or three families, they believe that families will get situated to their new homes first before seeking assistance. In Rochester, Hilda Escher, President and CEO of Ibero-American Action League indicated that they are already seeing families relocating to the area where roughly 65,000 residents are Latino, 70% of which are Puerto Rican and with more than half of them with ties to the island.
Michael Toledo, Director of Centro Hispano Daniel Torres in Reading, Pennsylvania and a member of UnidosUS’s Board of Directors is certain that families will relocate to Berks County where 60% of the population in Reading is Latino and half identify as Puerto Rican. Toledo has already received phone calls requesting assistance for family members, and has responded by notifying the school boards of Reading and Muhlenberg of the “possible influx of students from Puerto Rico.” Also in Reading, I-Lead Charter School is a designated drop-off zone for donations to Puerto Rico and their CEO Angel Figueroa has instructed that all staff expedite enrollment applications, even in the absence of transcripts. Figueroa anticipates that many families may be forced to relocate without proper documentation, but he still wants to do everything that he can to ensure that they feel safe and welcomed in his school. Contact information for these Affiliates can be found here.
UnidosUS is proud of the work that our Affiliates have done to help our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico as they relocate to the mainland. Hurricane Maria was one of the most destructive storms in decades, and their work is critical as families begin to rebuild their lives. We will continue to post updates on the work of our Affiliates, and if you want to get involved too, look here for more information.