The Puerto Rican diaspora of Orlando needs to think local to help the survivors of Hurricane María who are pouring into Florida from Puerto Rico.
As hurricane aid continues to lag in Puerto Rico, more migrants are heading to the Orlando area, desperate to escape a lack of food, water and electricity and eager for their children to attend school. Many people arrive with little money and no specific plans.
Because Puerto Ricans in the states cannot control what does or does not happen on the island concerning relief supplies, the Florida diaspora should start thinking of boosting resources here.
This is not to say that islanders are on their own – far from it, as the bond between aquí y allá, or here and there, is tight – but to remind Central Floridians that help is needed here where we live and work as well.
“We cry daily with the evacuees,” said Marytza Sanz of the organization Latino Leadership, which has been tending to Puerto Rico evacuees at its relief center on East Colonial Drive. “The move to Orlando is not a planned move. It’s an emergency move.”
She tells the story of 85-year old “Don Pedro” who traveled to Orlando with 75 cents in his pocket and was set to sleep on the steps of St. James Catholic Church in Downtown Orlando, thinking no one would assault an old man on the steps of a church. Sanz helped locate temporary shelter.
According to state figures, about 700 people disembark daily at Orlando International Airport from Puerto Rico flights. Earlier this week, the state relief center hit a high of 1,000 evacuees in a single day.
The Orlando relief center is moving November 4 to a larger location, according to a state official.
According to Gov. Rick Scott’s office, over 58,000 people arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since October 3 via Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and Port Everglades.
Pressure on local resources will become more acute as evacuees discover the cost of Central Florida housing – about $1,175 for a one-bedroom apartment. The rental rate rose 8 percent this year over 2016 in the four-county area of Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
A rush of new apartment seekers could push monthly rentals higher.
“This is a time bomb that’s going to happen here,” said Carlos Guzmán of the National Puerto Rican Leadership Council and who is married to Sanz.
Migrants may lengthen the years-old waiting list for affordable housing even more. Some counties are handing the ball to the state, waiting to see what Florida will do. The federal government this week issued about $11 million to Orange and Seminole counties, plus Sanford, for affordable housing needs. That money needs to be monitored to ensure it reaches evacuees as well.
According to the Sentinel, $8.2 million is earmarked for Orange, while Seminole’s portion is $2.3 million and Sanford, $402,000, for affordable and low-income housing, and homelessness.
Employers may need to step up. They stand to benefit greatly from the influx of new job seekers at a time when unemployment is 3.8 percent for September and declining, as reported this week. Transportation to get workers to and from jobs is likely to be an issue, given Central Florida’s inadequate and poorly funded public transit system.
Puerto Rican Diaspora
Florida’s Puerto Rican diaspora burst into action after María, a borderline category 5 hurricane, hit the island a month ago. Planeloads of supplies were delivered to the island but much of it has not been distributed.
Guzmán said his group sent three supplies-filled C-130 Hercules turboprops, each with the capacity of 42,000 pounds of payload, to the island. To date, the supplies have not been distributed and sit in San Juan due to government red tape, despite islanders’ pressing needs.
Florida State Rep. René Plasencia explained that the San Juan Convention Center, the disaster relief headquarters, is filled with government officials, local and federal, but marred by a lack of coordination.
(Many Florida elected officials have flown to Puerto Rico to assess the situation, including U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, Gov. Rick Scott, State Sen. Víctor Torres, and State Reps. Bob Cortés, Amy Mercado and Carlos Guillermo Smith.)
“One person will tell you to do this and when you get to the next person he’ll say, ‘Oh, don’t listen to him, he doesn’t know anything’, ” said Plasencia who has traveled to the island to take supplies. Plasencia also is Sanz and Guzmán’s son-in-law.
The thing is, it’s very likely that many local government employees don’t know a whole lot because, in Puerto Rico’s highly partisan environment, many are there to fulfill a political, not a civic purpose.
In fact, before Hurricanes Irma and María hit, the fiscal board that controls the island’s budget was demanding that central government workers be laid off or their hours reduced as a cost-saving measure. That demand later was suspended, to be revisited next year, the board said.
(The board did authorize the commonwealth government to reallocate $1 billion of its budget to disaster relief.)
As Orlando Latino reported earlier, Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people – and declining – support 135,000 government workers, compared with fewer than 100,000 full-time state workers in Florida, which has a population of nearly 21 million or six times that of Puerto Rico.
Vehicle for Change
Floridians wishing to send supplies to Puerto Rico – short of taking it themselves – ought to designate a specific individual or a specific town, with a local contact for distribution. Bypassing San Juan appears to be the way to go.
But a more important vehicle for change would be for the Puerto Rican diaspora to think local, think Central Florida, think Florida. There are yawning needs here as well to help the new Puerto Rican migrants acclimate to Florida.
˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor