AP NEWS

New life, new home, after the storm

June 6, 2019

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — After Hurricane Maria flooded her home in Dorado, Puerto Rico, Cristina Fuentes, her husband and three children fled to the mainland to begin a new life full of uncertainties.

“I lost everything,” she said late last month with a heavy sigh.

Fuentes and her small family traveled to Connecticut in need of food, medicine, and school for the children, knowing that they might never return to their homeland.

It’s been a nomadic two years, bouncing from a hotel, to a church shelter, and finally to their current East Hartford apartment, but ultimately, Fuentes said moving here was a good decision as her family received aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Salvation Army, and other organizations during the transition.

And despite the language barrier, she said her husband managed to find a job. Her family is settled in an apartment with donated furniture after months of housing instability. Now, Fuentes said she has no intention of moving back to Puerto Rico.

As the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins today, the family has come to realize they’re not alone in their decision to flee island life.

Fuentes said she’s made friends with other Puerto Rican families who moved to the area under similar circumstances, and they’ve all “joined forces” to support each other.

Families who lost their homes and livelihoods nearly two years ago when the Category 5 storm wreaked havoc in Dominica, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have since found stable and hopeful futures in Connecticut. Many survivors are still in need of assistance, however.

Local low-income Latino households took in many of the evacuees, straining their already tight household budgets, social service workers say. Area nonprofits, meanwhile, are seeking these survivors to try and help alleviate the housing crisis with assistance for moving costs, rent, and transportation needs.

“Even though it has been over a year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, people are still arriving in Connecticut, and those currently living in the state are still struggling to stabilize their housing, putting them at risk of homelessness,” said Mary Ann Haley, deputy director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

Many just aren’t aware that relief is available through the coalition, the United Way of Connecticut, the YMCA of Greater Hartford, Catholic Charities, and other groups, officials said.

13,000 survivors flock to Connecticut

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, leaving millions on the Caribbean island without power, and demolishing the homes of hundreds of thousands. According to a Harvard University study, the death count reached over 4,600 lives lost.

Relief efforts were slow to reach rural areas, and living conditions in the U.S. territory soon became unsafe for native islanders.

In search of jobs and security, many reluctantly left Puerto Rico to settle on the mainland — 13,000 came to Connecticut for at least a period of time following the devastating storm, officials from the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection said.

A January 2018 homelessness assessment report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the homeless population in Connecticut increased 17 percent, or almost 4,000 people, from 2017 to 2018. Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy attributed part of that significant increase to Hurricane Maria evacuees, saying that FEMA and other agencies had placed over 600 homeless people in Connecticut hotels by January 2018.

Combining efforts between federal, state, and nonprofit partners, thousands of hurricane survivors were fed, sheltered, and provided the basic means to begin new lives on the mainland. The tight-knit Puerto Rican community already living in Connecticut also played a vital role.

Evacuee populations difficult to track

Although many families like the Fuentes’ clan have found stable housing and jobs through organized recovery efforts, officials say there are many others in need of aid who can be difficult to find.

They may not be accustomed to seeking help from government resources, said coalition CEO Richard Cho. His agency has ties with community leaders who encourage people to seek services, and utilizes Spanish-speaking radio stations to spread the message.

Keeping track of how many evacuees remain in Connecticut towns and districts and connecting with them is challenging, officials said. And the state often relies on local school systems to report the number of students who enroll following a natural disaster to get a sense of how many displaced families are in town.

State records show that of the bump of 1,827 students enrolled across the state since Hurricane Maria landed, 39 percent are in Hartford County, and another 33 percent in New Haven County.

In East Hartford the schools saw an enrollment increase of 43 displaced students in the fall of 2017 following the deadly storm, local school officials said, while Manchester schools had 36 displaced students enrolled in 2017.

The state also looks at the number of people who applied for FEMA services, but that data only accounts for a percentage of evacuees. FEMA records from 2018 indicate that 1,245 households representing approximately 2,867 people migrated to Connecticut and filed for FEMA benefits.

Richard J. Porth, CEO and president of the United Way of Connecticut, explained that the vast majority of evacuees from Puerto Rico and other islands were met by family or community members and established themselves in Connecticut without “entering the system,” or registering with FEMA.

“It was amazing to watch how generous and resilient all of the families were in helping to take care of each other,” he said.

Like the Fuentes family, Hartford resident Agnes Torres came to Connecticut after Hurricane Maria tore apart the University of Puerto Rico, where she was studying. She has since come to rely on the Puerto Rican community in the area since she has no family here.

Trinity College in Hartford was among several universities to offer displaced students educational opportunities, and Torres said she’s thankful she found a home there to complete her master’s degree.

She now also works as Hartford Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez’s assistant.

Agencies continue work

The state government called on the United Way of Connecticut and their 211 program to be the “front door” for hurricane survivors as they entered Connecticut, Porth said.

“We could see early on that a lot of people turning to us for help really could benefit tremendously from disaster case management,” he said, and the organization worked to connect people with the proper agency.

Simultaneously, the coalition worked to set up funds to help families pay for security deposits, rent, furniture, and more.

The coalition received $600,000 from the state and still has housing and assistance available for families impacted by the hurricane, Cho said.

“I can’t personally imagine what it’s like to be displaced and come to a new community,” he said, adding that unstable housing, lacking a job, and accessing transportation all become limiting factors that can quickly lead to a downward spiral.

Officials from the YMCA of Greater Hartford’s Larson Center in East Hartford are also working to connect anyone in need with a wide range of assistance. That center received $40,000 from the state to assist hurricane evacuees find safe, affordable housing, subsidize vocational and educational programs that lead to employment or improved income, and provide childcare access.

Still, many evacuees remain in precarious housing situations or doubling-up with friends or relatives, Cho said, which puts a strain on resources and quality of life.

Through her new job connections and with the Puerto Rican community, Torres sees that there are still many people struggling to find housing and good paying jobs. Pressure from Puerto Rican community leaders has spurred the state to allocate more funds to help, she said.

East Hartford YMCA Executive Director Laura Floyd stressed the importance of programs that provide child care for working parents, further people’s education, and offer spaces where residents can meet and engage to better their circumstances.

These efforts help families to not only recover after having their lives upended; they also help them adjust to new surroundings and to seize opportunities and create brighter futures, YMCA officials said.

As for Puerto Rico’s recovery, the Fuentes clan receives updates from family still living there. There is much work to be done, Cristina Fuentes said, adding that there are homes still without roofs.

The beautiful island is rising back up, she said, “but it is a slow process.”

Those interested in Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts, FEMA’s assistance programs, and emergency preparedness tips as hurricane season begins can tune in to a newly launched radio program, “Dando Palique,” on Mix 107.7 FM that airs every Saturday at 9 a.m. The show debuted last week out of Orlando, Florida. Anyone living outside the area can access the live program by visiting the radio station’s website at https://www.mix107pr.com.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Z9PJo2

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Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com

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