LANCASTER — When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico in September, its winds and lashing rain moved like a murderous scythe across the lush island, toppling power lines, hurling cables across roadways and depositing vehicles upside down in fields.
Madelyn Velez Santiago’s hometown of Mayagüez was spared the worst of the storm’s direct impact. However, the collapse of the island’s electrical grid wiped out her livelihood.
“I worked as a dental assistant, but there was no work with no electricity, and we didn’t know when it would come back,” the 36-year-old mother of two says.
Almost three months after the storm devastated the island, Velez Santiago, who used to travel to Lancaster to visit family as a child, now shares a modest apartment with her children and a childhood friend on the city’s west side.
“The transition from Puerto Rico to here is an intense one, but we’ve decided to do it because there is nothing in Puerto Rico now,” she says. “It’s tough, but it’s what I have to do.”
Velez Santiago and her children — Luis, 15, and Fabiola, 7 — are among nearly four dozen families who are now adjusting to life in Lancaster, some 1,600 miles way from their former home.
Blown off their tropical island by the tempest’s destructive force, many are here to stay, despite the daunting tasks of finding steady jobs, affordable housing and education for their children.
“The transition from Puerto Rico to here is an intense one, but we’ve decided to do it because there is nothing in Puerto Rico now. It’s tough, but it’s what I have to do.”
The challenges of families relocating from Puerto Rico will be an issue city officials will have to face.
“Thus far, individual families, communities of faith and the school district have been really stepping up in big ways to support families that have been displaced from Puerto Rico,” says Lancaster’s incoming mayor, Danene Sorace. “But one of the things I’m trying to get a handle on is where families can go whether their needs are housing or counseling services, as for many this has been a traumatic experience.
“I’d like to have some coordination and to establish a welcome page on our website with some basic information to get families connected depending on what their needs might be,” Sorace says. “I do feel we can help people get acclimated and communicate that individuals and families who have been displaced by Maria have a home here.”
‘Families are struggling’
As the bare trees of early winter line the street up to Velez Santiago’s apartment complex, the mood within is warmed by a glowing Christmas tree and the energy of her children. Sometimes called “the Spanish Rose” — a play on its traditional designation as “The Red Rose City” — Lancaster boasts a large Latino population that makes up roughly 40 percent of the city’s nearly 60,000 residents, the vast majority of whom are of Puerto Rican extraction.
“I like history a lot,” says Luis, who attends J.P. McCaskey High School. “But it’s a little difficult here because I don’t speak much English yet.”
“I don’t have friends here yet like I did in Puerto Rico, where I had a lot,” says Fabiola.
While hundreds of thousands of people have fled the island since Maria tore it asunder, tens of thousands had already been leaving amid a grinding economic crisis even before the storm.
Since Maria, the School District of Lancaster has welcomed 72 students from 47 families, ranging in ages from elementary school to high school. Educating the youngsters, however, is only one of the hurdles that new arrivals face.
“These families are struggling to find decent housing and jobs,” says Damaris Rau, SDL’s superintendent. “And I think for many of the adults, they may have been doing great in the middle class in Puerto Rico, but they come here and they can’t speak English and they are unable to get the level of employment they should.”
“When we put out a call to the community for backpacks, uniforms, people came forth and gave us tons of things, (but) the county says they have jobs and can’t fill them and I think the community needs to stand up and find employment for these people,” she says.
Some already have.
Trying to help
Tyson Foods has a specifically designed slate of jobs “for people who were affected by Hurricane Maria and had to relocate from Puerto Rico,” according to its website.
Both the Lancaster-Lebanon IU 13 and the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon are offering free English classes to new arrivals.
“We created a new arrival class for any newcomers in Lancaster County who need to learn English, and we’ve been able to accommodate the arrivals with that class,” says Cheryl Hiester, the council’s executive director. “Nearly all the Puerto Ricans taking the class are professionals,” Hiester says. “And we are also trying to match them with mentors to try and help them connect with their related careers in Lancaster.”
When the families displaced by the hurricane can return to the island remains an open question. Though the official death toll from the storm is 62, mortality data from the island suggests the true total might be well over 1,000.
After a federal response widely criticized as lethargic and unfocused —which saw many towns fending for themselves for weeks after the hurricane — only around 65 percent of the island’s 3.4 million people have regular access to power, according to the Puerto Rican government, and material damage to buildings and roads remains widespread.
U.S. Reps. Lloyd Smucker and Charlie Dent wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi late last month calling for additional federal disaster funding for schools in Pennsylvania’s 15th and 16th congressional districts, both of which have seen an influx of school-aged children from Puerto Rico after the storm. The money would come from $1.2 billion in proposed aid that would go towards an educational recovery fund.
Amid such emigration, however, many of Puerto Rico’s business leaders have criticized the recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — which both Smucker and Dent supported — with the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association warning that new levies on Puerto Rico’s businesses contained among its proposals would be “catastrophic” for the island’s already-battered economy and lead to more citizens fleeing to the mainland.
Neither congressman was available to comment on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
‘My kids ... need stability’
Evanisse Maria Rivera, 33, welcomed her two children to her East King Street apartment in Lancaster last month. Danievy and Luis had been living with their father on the island.
The sandy shores of Salinas, the town on Puerto Rico’s southern coast where her family hails from, have been replaced by brown leaves swirling on the sidewalk in a winter wind outside her door.
“It was very scary,” Danievy, a fifth-grader at Wickersham Elementary School, says of the hurricane. “A lot of tress fell down, the noise was very loud. At first the light was there, but it started flickering and the next day it just left completely.”
“I’m a single mom, there’s no more income than what I get, and my kids coming from Puerto Rico need stability.”
Living in a two-bedroom walk-up with her two other children, Rivera has been told that her two new arrivals may jeopardize her eligibility for rental housing assistance for affordable housing.
“It’s scary sometimes when I go to bed, I have to think about that,” says Rivera, a certified peer specialist working at a local Dollar Tree since being laid off from a previous job in her field earlier this year.
“I’m a single mom, there’s no more income than what I get, and my kids coming from Puerto Rico need stability,” Rivera says. “(But) we’re very resilient people, and there’s more opportunity here.”
Her son, soon to be a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School, likes being here, but some things take time to get used to.
“I feel great being in Lancaster,” Luis says. “But the temperature is horrible.”