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Two Years After Hurricane Maria: UConn Team Examines Response To Influx Of Puerto Rican Evacuees

Steven Senne
Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018 photo, Jesenia Flores, 19, holds her son Jose, both of Aibonito, Puerto Rico, while watching her mother-in-law Luisa Mercedes, center left, play dominos with fellow evacuees at a hotel, in Dedham, Mass.

Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, the response to the crisis on the U.S. mainland is only now coming into focus. 

A professor at the University of Connecticut is studying how officials in Holyoke, Massachusetts dealt with evacuees from the island.

The work done by Charles Venator-Santiago and his team at the UConn Institute for Latina/o Caribbean, and Latin American Studies could serve as a lesson for Connecticut cities.

Venator-Santiago studied the ways in which Holyoke welcomed new arrivals from Puerto Rico after the storm.  He said the key was giving evacuees one centralized place to go for help.

“A center called Enlace de Familias received some funding from the state and some funding from other agencies to essentially create a receiving center that coordinated everything,” Venator-Santiago said. “There were representatives from federal agencies like social security, there were representatives from FEMA, there were food banks -- it was one-stop shopping, if you will.”

Elsewhere, according to Venator-Santiago, evacuees couldn’t work with officials from local, state, and federal agencies to unlock key resources at the same place where other basic needs were being fulfilled.   

“One of the key findings that we found in Hartford and we found everywhere is that the bulk of the people who assumed responsibility for displaced Puerto Ricans were people living in poverty or living with low-income,” Venator-Santiago said. “So, we’re hoping then that we can share our information to -- I don’t know -- address that problem, which is that the state should bear a different kind of responsibility.”

The overall goal of the study commissioned by the Massachusetts Vulnerability Preparedness program is to develop a plan for other municipalities in Massachusetts the next time there’s a climate change event similar to the displacement of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.

Charles Venator-Santiago, an associate professor at the Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut, presents findings from a previous study related to the displacement of Puerto Ricans after Maria.
Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio

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Among other issues that the ‘El Instituto’ team took with the treatment of evacuees was a refusal by the Trump administration to allow for interagency agreements between certain departments in the federal government, something Venator-Santiago said was in practice when Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy struck U.S. cities in 2005 and 2012. The absence of the inter-agency agreement, according to Venator-Santiago, is what led to evacuees staying for extended periods in hotels like the Red Roof Inn in Hartford.

“FEMA brought people to the United States – 19,000 of them precisely—but didn’t have an inter-agency agreement with HUD to house them. So, FEMA brought 19,000 people, dumped them in hotels, and just left them there. People had to fend for themselves – people with nothing and no resources.

Venator-Santiago said he’ll eventually brief officials in Connecticut on his findings.

He’ll submit his final report on Holyoke to the state of Massachusetts at the end of this month and will hope to have something for the public in October.

Frankie Graziano is the host of 'The Wheelhouse,' focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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