New York City responds to crisis in Puerto Rico

It has been more than a month since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but much of the island still remains without reliable access to electricity, clean drinking water, and medical services, and it is likely to stay that way for months. For many Puerto Ricans, rebuilding their lives will mean leaving their homeland and migrating to the continental United States.

New York City holds one of the highest populations of Puerto Ricans in the United States and as commercial flights off of the island become easier to access the city is preparing for an influx of Puerto Ricans coming to rebuild their lives in the city.

“The hardest part right now is the lack of electricity,” said Zoraida Cabrera, who is originally from Hatillo, Puerto Rico and still has family there. She said that while conditions in Hatillo have improved over the past month, life is still far from normal for Puerto Ricans across the island. Many people are still living off of mostly nonperishable foods, as new shipments to grocery stores are scarce and without electricity food cannot stay cold for long.“There are some main roads with working light posts. However, areas that had serious damages to the electrical infrastructure—such as where my grandparents live—and remote areas—like where my parents live—may not have electricity for months, maybe even a year.”

Situations like these are what will force an estimated 114,396 to 212,607 people—up to 6 percent of Puerto Rico’s current population—to migrate to the United States over the next year, according to a research brief, “Estimates of Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico” issued by Hunter College. Between 7,350 and 11,877 of those Puerto Ricans are estimated to migrate to New York state.

Puerto Rico-themed shirts are for sale in East Harlem, which has one of the highest populations of Puerto Ricans in New York City.

While most migrants from Puerto Rico over the past three years have been under 65 the lack of access to medicine and electricity could mean that more elderly people will need to leave the island to access the healthcare they need, according to the Hunter report. With even major hospitals still suffering power outages and a lack of medical supplies, family members in New York City, worried about their elderly relatives, are already trying to secure hard-to-find flights to get their high-risk relatives to safety.

“Does anyone know how I might get ahold of people organizing humanitarian flights out of Puerto Rico for the sick and elderly?” New Yorker Celilia Aldarondo asked in a Facebook post. “Trying to get my abuela and her two sisters to Tampa. They are very frail and running out of food, and the situation is getting bad. There are no commercial flights.”

The City Council, the Mayor’s Office, and Public Advocate Letita James’s Office are working together to make sure that once Puerto Ricans do get to New York they have access to the services they need. On October 19, a center opened in East Harlem to allow individuals displaced by Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Harvey to access many city agencies and services in one location. These include emergency food assistance and enrollment in SNAP benefits and public heath insurance from the Department of Social Services, mental health counseling, health insurance support, emergency pharmacy assistance, and information on immunizations from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, meals for seniors, and assistance in case management and senior employment from the Department for the Aging, legal consultation from the Human Resource Administration’s Office of Civil Justice, and information for displaced students from the Department of Education.

“This is a humanitarian crisis the likes our city has ever experienced and we must do everything we can to help our fellow Puerto Ricans who have given so much to our city and to our country,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in a press release about the center opening. “This city is prepared to help Boricuas from the island with the resources and providing essential services during this dire time of need.”

Julissa Gonzalez, Director of Constituent Services at the Public Advocate’s Office, said that her office has already received many calls from Hurricane Maria survivors. “The most common questions we’ve been receiving are housing related, but they can vary,” she said.

Some of those questions are from Puerto Ricans who already have Section 8 housing vouchers and are looking to transfer them to New York, which they can do because Section 8 is a federal program. However, even individuals eligible for affordable housing may have trouble finding housing in New York. “New York City has had a housing crisis for years, prior to the hurricane,” said Gonzalez. “All affordable housing options have long waiting lists. So Puerto Ricans who come to NYC are able to apply for these options, however they will have to be on those waiting lists like everyone else.”

Instead, Puerto Ricans may be eligible for rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) while their homes are being repaired or replaced, which they could use in New York although they would need either to be home or to arrange to have someone else present at their home to complete a FEMA inspection in order to continue receiving aid. They could also be eligible for a reimbursement from FEMA if they use their own money for rent. Also, because of New York City’s Right-to-Shelter mandate, anyone in the city will not be turned away from a shelter, although Gonzalez acknowledges that would be a last resort.

Many hurricane survivors have also experienced trauma and have left their lives and homes behind, which means they will need mental health services. “Most migrants relocating from Puerto Rico will need access to counseling and in many cases post traumatic treatment,” said Edwin Melendez, Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “All services would require cultural competency from providers; a familiarity with Puerto Rican culture and the events related to the hurricane.”

Even being away from the island in a time of crisis can be hard for Puerto Ricans living on the mainland. “From the moment I heard Maria was passing I wanted to be there so I could help,” said Cabrera. “But the truth is there is not much I could’ve done by being there.”

Gonzalez, who is part of the Puerto Rican diaspora living in New York herself, said that the Puerto Rican community in New York has “been in crisis mode” since Hurricane Irma hit the island before Hurricane Maria, but that the response from the community has been “tremendous.”

“From hosting food drives to fundraisers to help support on-the-ground initiatives on the island, we’ve been pooling together resources to charter planes to personally deliver the goods, we’ve been creating support systems both online and in physical spaces, we’ve been relying on each other for accurate information since the mainstream media has not been properly reporting the actual conditions on the island,” she said.

Cabrera expressed dismay at the federal response to the crisis. “I am angered at the fact that the federal government has questioned Puerto Rico’s right to aid when the island is filled with tax payers,” she said. “There is a long history of the US abandoning the island during times of crisis, and this history should not repeat itself. This is still a crisis.”

Gonzalez agreed that there is still a lot of work to be done. “A long term commitment needs to happen, not only by the Puerto Ricans in the diaspora,” she said. “The entire city is committed to the long term relief efforts.”

For individuals like Aldarondo and her grandmother, there is no time to wait. “The generator blew. Now there is no running water. Now anyone who wants to bring her food, ice or medication has to climb 9 flights of stairs to reach her,”Aldarondo posted about her grandmother’s living situation. “I am very worried that my family will have to add another number to the underreported death toll.”