Storm Surge

Storm Surge

“Puerto Rico,” the cell phone screen says. But the caller, Manuel Sierra, is speaking from New Haven. This is his home now, since Hurricane Maria drove his family from the island two years ago. Sierra is among approximately 3,000 Puerto Ricans who left the island in the wake of the September 20, 2017 storm to seek safety in New Haven. Estimates vary as to how many are still here, settling into a new life, but Sierra, his wife and two sons are by no means alone.

New Haven was the destination of choice for many Puerto Ricans because family and friends were here to support them. Connecticut is the state with the highest concentration of Puerto Rican residents, according to a news release from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, which helps explain why, “in the first six months [after] the disaster alone, families in Connecticut welcomed 10% of the 135,000 who came to the U.S. mainland in search of shelter.”

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In Sierra’s case, his wife’s sister and her family took them in. It was tough on everyone, he says—for his family of four, including two teenage sons, to share a room, for the boys to jump into new schools, for him to find a job. At age 42, Sierra struggled to speak the English he’d learned in school but mostly forgotten. “We are learning the language, we are learning the food and other stuff, the places… It’s very hard to do it,” he says, “but we are strong.”

Doug Olson, vice president of clinical affairs for Fair Haven Community Health Care, which treated nearly 600 people displaced by the hurricane at two of its care sites as well as at school-based health centers in New Haven and East Haven, has observed “varying degrees of… anxiety or grief [and] loss.” Some new arrivals also developed PTSD and depression. The impact on people’s health was even greater than clinicians had expected, Olson says. Many lost not only their homes and neighborhoods, but their entire way of life. It’s not “just having the buildings torn down by the storm. It’s the fabric of your relationships torn, too,” he says.

New Haven Public Schools welcomed 212 students from Puerto Rico following the hurricane, says Daniel Diaz, coordinator of parent engagement for city schools. Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico himself, went above and beyond his official capacity to help the storm’s victims. Through Arte Inc., a New Haven nonprofit “dedicated to developing and promoting Latino art, culture and education,” Diaz and others spearheaded fundraising efforts. They then used their connections on the ground in Puerto Rico to assess people’s needs and cultivated relationships with merchants both here and on the island, securing pledges to donate or sell needed items at a deep discount. Making their first trip to Puerto Rico in January of 2018, about four months after the storm, they delivered food, clothing, gas- and solar-powered appliances, oxygen tanks for a senior center, 500 mattresses and other necessities. Other aid trips followed, and Diaz continues to check up on residents whenever he goes back to visit his own family.

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Junta for Progressive Action, a 50-year-old Fair Haven nonprofit supporting the local Latin American community, was the natural place to serve as a clearinghouse, helping approximately 1,800 newcomers find the services and items they needed, including “housing, food, clothing, furniture, benefit programs, healthcare, job finding, English classes, transportation, and more,” its website says. Among them was Aisha Meléndez, who came four months after the hurricane with her two teenage children from the mountain town of Cayey. “The situation became really desperate and hopeless and we had to leave,” Meléndez says through translator Celina Fernández of Junta. Unlike many others, Meléndez doesn’t have family here. But she’s among the estimated 12% who are likely, based on data from earlier storms, to stay, Fernández says. Junta has helped her find better health care and educational opportunities for her kids. “I’m not going back to Puerto Rico,” Meléndez says. “I love it, I miss it, but no. Vacations maybe.”

Other nonprofits and city stakeholders pitched in to help as well. United Way of Greater New Haven quickly raised nearly $8,000, which it passed along to Junta, and coordinated drives with its corporate partners for employees to collect coats, winter clothing, toiletries and other necessities. A weekly meeting of a Hurricane Maria Relief Task Force was led by Rick Fontana, the city’s deputy director of emergency management operations, bringing together two dozen departments, agencies and organizations. They spent the next year coordinating housing, health care, bus passes, services for the elderly, school issues and other basic needs, ultimately serving nearly 3,000 people, Fontana says. “It was really a huge humanitarian effort on behalf of the city,” he says. “We just had great partners who were able to welcome people and… make them feel like, ‘Hey, we’re going to treat you like you’re one of us.’”

Fontana estimates that about 900 of those original 3,000 have decided to remain in the area, many of them in New Haven. “As time went on, the electrical infrastructure there just needed … to be rebuilt, and people weren’t going to go back home to a blue tarp roof and no drinking water,” he says. “So a lot of people stayed here.” Diaz says that last school year—the year after the storm—182 of the 212 children who came from Puerto Rico were still attending classes in New Haven, and 11 of the 12 who had arrived as seniors had graduated on time. Olson estimates that of the patients seen by FHCHC, about half have stayed.

The destruction in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian this season isn’t expected to drive a similar influx of new residents. Fewer Bahamians have family in New Haven, and they would have to enter the US as foreigners, whereas Puerto Ricans are citizens.

Manuel Sierra says he arrived in New Haven just after the storm with $150 in his pocket and took a job that first fall making Christmas wreaths for $1 each. Now he has a stable job with a plumbing and building supply company in Clinton, and his family plans to buy a house in Meriden.

It’s a case of aqui me quedo, Daniel Diaz says, quoting a Puerto Rican saying that’s also the title of a book by Ruth Glasser about Puerto Ricans settling in Connecticut. “Here, I stay,” he translates. “Their kids started school [here], so there was no reason for them to go back… nothing to go back to,” he says. “We embraced them, and they stayed, which is a good thing.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos of the Puerto Rico National Guard.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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