Displaced Maria survivors continue to struggle


Roadside scene in Rincon, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria showing damage to businesses and power lines.


Pastor Jose Nieves of First Kissimmee United Methodist Church had hoped to create a plan to help Puerto Rican families displaced last fall by Hurricane Maria get through the off-school months at their new homes in Central Florida.

But as that time draws closer, he instead was confronted by the possibility that housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Association could force 180 of those 500 families out on the streets within days. It could turn a bad situation into something catastrophic.

Maria, one of the worst Atlantic storms of the last century, left many of those families with little or no possessions. Some still suffer from post-traumatic stress, and all are struggling to figure out their futures.

Holston Conference District Disaster Coordinator Rev. Harry Howe expresses joy after delivering supplies to First Kissimmee UMC in December. He drove more than 600 miles to help provide relief to Puerto Rican families.

Nieves, who runs Casa de Paz, a bilingual ministry in Kissimmee, has been helping these families since they began arriving last fall. Turns out, the first phase of help was easy – supplying the children with school supplies so they could immediately get back to their studies and be helping families settle into FEMA-funded hotel rooms.

Then came the news that aid could be ending. Although they received an extension on the deadline to May 14 and have requested that it be pushed back until the end of the current school year, the urgency to find a solution is clear.

“That’s where all our efforts are,” he said. “Honestly, it’s all I am thinking about. I haven’t had time to think about summer. There are no facilities to properly provide help for 180 families quickly.

“As a church, we are advocating together with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio for an extension of the FEMA deadline up to the end of the school year.”

He and Deacon Mary Downey arranged a press conference together, then met with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico to get the deadline extension and then help families decide if they’ll go back to the ravaged island or stay here.

Downey, founder and executive director of the Community Hope Center in Osceola County, said The United Methodist Church is constantly partnering with families to either get them help to find work and housing or get them back to Puerto Rico.

“That is fluid, as we present options to them after speaking with the governor’s staff,” she said.

“Right now, our families are still in survival mode, and it is still difficult for them to make the decision about their future. Some of our case management work is helping to alleviate that stress.”

She said the effort is moving forward.

“The governor gave the commitment to work on a smooth transition,” Downey said. “Our goal is to partner with the folks on the ground in Puerto Rico. One of the main things my agency has done is work through the issue of IDs and the need for documentation.

“We talked at length about partnering closely to get people proper identification. If someone has a CDL (truck driving license) in Puerto Rico, that would be recognized here.”

One of the big problems, Nieves said, is that FEMA officials are using addresses for the people now in Florida and checking on their homes in Puerto Rico. They can deem a house fit to occupy there, then cut off housing benefits here.

Students from First United Methodist School in Kissimmee helped unload 1300 school kits and other supplies delivered from the Holston Conference in December. The donated supplies will provide needed relief to Puerto Rican children displaced by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. —Photo by Don Youngs

“But they might have been renting and their lease is now up, so they really have no place to go back to,” he said. “Or there may already be another family living in their former house.

“There are still close to 500 families living in hotels here. Most of the people assume these families have homes in Puerto Rico they can go back to.”

That isn’t always the case, he said. In some instances, families were asked to move out so that repairs could be made. In some cases, those repairs are complete.

“If a house is looking fine, FEMA says you could go back, but that house might not be available,” Nieves said.
Finding work in Florida isn’t always easy either, he said.

“It takes $3,000 to $5,000 to move into an apartment,” he said. “And you need a house reasonably close to work. And the market for houses in Central Florida is greatly diminished. There are not a lot of affordable houses available.”

The church effort is supporting with donations for rent, water and electric deposits to families who have a job and are trying to establish a life here.

“Each family is different,” Downey said. “There is no government agency effectively providing help on the ground for these families.”

The volunteers are still receiving offerings from various churches and people can continue to donate to help these families, Nieves said.

“To us,” he said, “they are children of God and this is part of building the kingdom of God.”

Click here for more news from UMNS.

To donate to Puerto Rico hurricane relief, click here.

—Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.


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