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Far and away: Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rican communities in the United States

We are in the midst of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, and September tends to be the month with the most frequent and most destructive hurricanes. This week there have been five tropical cyclonic disturbances in the Atlantic, with hurricane Sally battering the Gulf of Mexico coast. The destructiveness of tropical cyclones derives from a combination of high winds, storm surges and copious rainfall, that lead to structural damage, flooding, landslides and other forms of erosion. Hurricanes also traverse vast expanses of water and land. With increase mobility of people across countries, however, the effects of temporales are felt not only in the communities they directly hit, but also in communities to which residents of those communities turn seeking help. Hurricane Maria is an example of how a weather event that takes place in the Caribbean affects communities not just there, but also far and away.

With the dispersion of Puerto Ricans far and wide, when hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico three years ago, its effects were also felt one-thousand miles in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke is a community with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the United States; nearly half its population is of Puerto Rican origin or descent. It is also a community with great economic needs given by the fact that Puerto Ricans in New England generally, and Massachusetts specifically, have the highest rates of poverty and lowest household income in the country. Yet, in spite of great economic disadvantages, the Puerto Rican community in Holyoke rallied to respond, first, by providing material assistance to friends, family, and entire communities in Puerto Rico, and, then, by opening their homes to relatives and friends displaced in the aftermath of the storm.

The experiences of those displaced to the United States by the hurricane, the relatives who provided them with safe haven in the United States, and the civic and government sectors that supported both groups in Holyoke in the weeks, months, and now years since the storm hit, are collected in Anticipated Vulnerabilities: Displacement and Migration in the Age of Climate Change, a report jointly produced by Centro and El Instituto. (Para la versión en español, haga clic aquí)

Among the major findings of the report are:

The majority of displaced Puerto Ricans arriving to the City of Holyoke relied on kin networks, that is family and friends who provided support in addressing their needs. Given the socioeconomic standing of Puerto Ricans residing in Holyoke, we conclude that working-class and Puerto Ricans living in or near poverty assumed a disproportionate burden in support of displaced Puerto Ricans migrating to the city of Holyoke.

Communal solidarity and standing issue-based coalitions were a key dimension of the positive responses to the disaster in Puerto Rico and in the City of Holyoke. A sense of solidarity among Puerto Ricans is a resource for future responses to a crisis. A sense of commitment also exists among the not-for-profit organizations and other civic sector associations provides a similar resource. However, these sources of capital may be of limited duration, and dependent on the existing stock of material resources.

Displaced Puerto Ricans residing in the Holyoke and in Western Massachusetts view the City of Holyoke as a resource.

Access to affordable housing became the key to stabilizing displaced Puerto Ricans.

Displaced Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly indicated that Holyoke’s Family Resource Center—Enlace de Familias—provided the most effective support to their address their needs. Central to the success of the response to the sudden and large arrival of persons displaced by Hurricane Maria was the creation of a central hub or resource center that provided access to various federal, state and local agencies and resources for an extended period of time. This “one-stop-shopping” approach was effective and efficient.

Regular meetings (i.e., conference calls) among responding entities to share information, coordinate response and request resources were also seen as instrumental in facilitating the delivery of services under circumstances of great uncertainty and limited surplus of resources.

Central to the success of the response to the post-Maria migration of Puerto Ricans to the City of Holyoke was the solidarity, collaboration and synergy of culturally-competent civic leaders and leaders of agencies who were committed to offering a collective response. Extant patterns of cooperation, coordination and communication paved the way for a focused response once the arrival of displaced persons reached unmanageable proportions for any single entity. Insufficient resources before and during the response to the arrival of displaced persons hampered the effective response and assistance of entities recruited or volunteered to provide assistance.

Below are graphic representation of the needs displaced persons encountered while in Puerto Rico, once they moved to Holyoke, and the services they received in Holyoke upon arriving, contained in the report.

If you moved to the U.S. because of the hurricane that struck Puerto Rico, what was the reason?

 

Freq.

 

Percent

Children’s school closed

2

4.7

Did not have any source of steady income

8

18.6

Had no access to needed medical treatment

4

9.3

Home destroyed, damaged, and uninhabitable

11

25.6

Hopelessness

1

2.3

My job/place of employment closed

2

2.7

No electricity

2

4.7

No electricity, Little access to fuel

1

2.3

No electricity, No running water

1

2.3

No job prospects

4

9.3

Not enough food for my family

8

18.6

Total

43

100

 

After moving from Puerto Rico to Holyoke or elsewhere in Hampden County, what were your needs?

 

Freq.

 

Percent

Access to needed medical treatment

4

9.8

Access to needed medication

1

2.4

Furniture

1

2.4

Need housing

18

43.9

Not enough food for my family

3

7.3

Not enough income for my family’s needs

4

9.8

Other

1

2.4

Rent/mortgage is too high for my income

2

4.9

Transportation

1

2.4

Unemployment

6

14.6

Total

41

100

 

Families Displaced by Natural Forces

Totals

Total Families from Intake

982

Total Family Members from Intake

2,295

Unduplicated Number of Family Members Who Received Services

2,153

Total Children Served (0-17)

750

Total Adults Served (18+)

1,372

Total Age Unknown

31

Total Services Provided

7,186

Food/Nutrition (Pantry, Meals, WIC, Food Stamps, etc.)

2,244

Clothing

1,770

Other (e.g., Assistance with FEMA, Elder Care Services, Health Insurance, WIC, SSI, Continu- ing Education)

1,209

Rental Assistance

361

Employment/Job search (Job Application)

358

Health Care (Screenings, insurance, immunizations, etc.)

273

Housing / Shelter Assistance (Housing Applications)

181

Furniture

156

Mental Health Services

137

Income/Transitional Assistance

135

SSI / SSDI

108

School Support / School Liaison

59

Educational/Recreational Activities

34

Adult Education

32

Transportation

20

Legal Assistance

18

Diapers

16

Financial Literacy

15

Translation Services

11

Fuel Assistance / Utilities

6

Baby Formula

5

Baby Items

5

Car Seats

4

Child Care

4

Undefined

4

Computer Literacy Education

3

Behavior Management

2

Child Development Information

2

Early Intervention/Development Screening

2

Household Management

2

Immigration

2

Services for Children with Special Needs

2

Be Proud! Be Protective

1

Citizenship Information

1

Cooking Events / Potluck

1

Family Outings

1

Family Planning, Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding Support

1

Involvement with Child Protective Services

1

 

The report is the result of an initiative by the government of the state of Massachusetts to help municipalities throughout the state prepare for weather events caused and exacerbate by climate change. The City of Holyoke responded to this initiative—the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program—to learn lessons provided by the response to the sudden and massive influx of Puerto Ricans displaced by the Hurricane Maria. El Instituto: the Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies (University of Connecticut-Storrs) and Centro, joined forces and resources in order to undertake the study, which revealed, among other things, how local resources, whether from individuals, community groups or governmental agencies, are often insufficient to tend to the needs of victims of catastrophic events, and which without the assistance of state and federal governments such assistance does not provide apt relief. One of the most important practical lessons learned was the effectiveness of the creation of a “one-stop-shop,” that gathered under one roof all the groups and agencies providing services, resources and information to displaced persons.

The increased frequency and intensity of catastrophic weather events in the context of a changing climate, whether it is in Puerto Rico or in the United States, makes it imperative to assess collective efforts that can provide stakeholders with best practices that may be shared and replicated in communities affected by anticipated vulnerabilities.