Editor’s note: It is expected that Florida will receive thousands of new Puerto Rican neighbors because of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. Current projections range from 250,000 to 500,000 people in Central Florida, particularly in Orange and Osceola counties. Through a ministry of the East Central District, the Florida Conference aims to provide school supplies and help meet other basic needs for families. Click here to make a donation.
KISSIMMEE—The moment Pembroke Pines resident Oscar Negron saw the National Hurricane Center’s projections showing Puerto Rico directly in the path of Hurricane Maria, he made airline reservations to return to his homeland.
|Belongings are piled under the open sky in a building damaged when Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico causing widespread destruction, Sept. 20. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.|
“I knew it was going to be bad,” said Negron of the hurricane that devastated the American territory of Puerto Rico Sept. 20.
An active member of Nueva Vida Hispanic Mission United Methodist Church in Pembroke Pines, Negron moved from Puerto Rico to Florida years ago. His sister, who now lives in Orlando, relocated to Florida as well.
However, their mother and father, ages 83 and 85, respectively, remained in the home in Guaynabo City, Puerto Rico, where they had raised their family. Negron also had an elderly aunt and uncle, in Guaynabo City, both in poor health.
Fearing for their safety, Negron boarded a plane the following day and headed toward the hurricane while others fled it.
“The storm arrived at 2 a.m. that Wednesday and we rode it out within my parent’s home,” Negron said. “For 22 hours, the island was under siege by hurricane winds. It was frightening.”
Puerto Rico was still reeling from damage caused by Hurricane Irma, which brushed the northeast coast of the island Sept. 5. Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 154 mph, finished the job that Hurricane Irma started.
“The island was decimated,” Negron said. “The entire electrical grid crumbled and all of the cellphone towers were destroyed. Puerto Rico was left without electricity or communications. It took 100 years to build the island’s power grid, and it was destroyed in one night.”
Negron’s parents’ concrete block home managed to survive the winds and flooding, while the majority of wood-frame homes on the island were torn apart. While Negron was busy helping his relatives and neighbors clean up, the Rev. Jose D. Nieves, associate pastor of Casa de Paz at First Kissimmee United Methodist Church, frantically tried to reach his mother in Puerto Rico.
“Communications were down. There was no way to phone or text anyone,” Nieves said. “It took me 60 hours to connect with my mother after the hurricane struck.”
When he finally reached her, Nieves said he’s never known his mother to be so shaken.
“My mom is in her 70s, and I’ve never heard her cry like that,” he said.
|Posts and power lines remain damaged following Hurricane Maria. Authorities have announced that restoration of power could take more than six months. Photo by the Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, UMNS.|
Puerto Rico was already in the midst of an economic crisis when the hurricane hit. Officials estimated that it could take months to rebuild the island’s power grid.
With homes and businesses flattened or flooded, no communications, no electricity and a crumbling infrastructure, many Puerto Rican families felt their only option was to leave Puerto Rico and join relatives in Florida, Texas and New York.
In the three weeks following the hurricane, 38,000 people fled Puerto Rico, including Negron’s relatives.
After hearing countless stories like Negron’s, Nieves said he felt called to take action.
“I spent the first three weeks wondering, crying and feeling as if there was nothing I could do,” he said. “Then, as I was praying, it dawned on me that many of these families would be heading for Florida. We now have one million Puerto Ricans living in Florida, and it’s only natural that those affected by the hurricane would come here to be with relatives. They would need help finding permanent homes, jobs, schools for their children and help replacing all of the possessions they lost during the hurricane or were forced to leave behind.”
His first act was to call contacts he had with the Osceola School District because he knew these displaced families would want to enroll their children in school.
“In just the first week after the hurricane, 38 students from Puerto Rico had been enrolled in schools in Osceola,” Nieves said. “In a few weeks, the number jumped to 300 students, and I know three times as many enrolled in schools in Orange County during the same period.”
Nieves is working with fellow churches and businesses in the district to provide backpacks of school supplies for children, free haircuts and gift certificates for groceries.
“My goal is to welcome them and show them our character as the hands and feet of Christ,” Nieves said. “We want to reassure them that God is greater than any tragedy, any storm, and we will match with praise the destruction of this storm.”
Nieves wants to interview each family to make an accurate assessment of the needs they have.
“We don’t want to act rashly and assume they need things they don’t,” he said. “When we collect funds, we want them used in the most effective and responsible way possible. I emphasize that this won’t be a two-month process. It’s going to take years to help these families adjust.”
Any donations of funds, backpacks, school supplies and gift certificates are welcome. Click here to donate. The East Central District-led ministry is a conference-wide effort.
“We need an organized response to helping these families that are relocating here,” said Icel Rodriguez, director of global missions for the conference. “Too many times in a crisis, you see a duplication of services and you aren’t really meeting the needs of those impacted. Jose is putting together a model of how to deal with all of these new residents, and I invite other districts to replicate it.”
By the same token, Rodriguez is cautioning volunteers against rushing to Puerto Rico to help without proper training and knowledge of the needs.
“Our first response is to jump on a plane to help, but we don’t want to create chaos with our presence,” she said.
She plans to host an emergency response training session in Spanish Nov. 11. “We especially need volunteers who are bilingual or fluent in Spanish,” she said.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.