Daily Archives: Jan 2, 2018

People line up to board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that will take them to the U.S. mainland, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Luis Cruz got a generator connection from the bakery next door to run lights and fans in his Humacao martial-arts studio. But last month, only about a third of his students were still practicing karate kicks and punches. Many had left for the U.S. mainland.

“Thank God I didn’t lose my gym or my home in the storm, but I depend on clients who did,” said Cruz, a 38-year-old father of three with a rosary dangling from his neck.

Now he may follow, relocating his business to Florida, where he made a fact-finding trip to Orlando last month. Since early October, some 231,000 Puerto Ricans have traveled to the Orlando, Tampa and Miami airports, a number that surpasses the population of Rochester, New York. 

The new residents are likely to be both burden and boon. The immigrants, who are all citizens, are arriving as national unemployment has fallen to 4.1 percent and Florida’s is 3.6 percent, down from a recessionary peak of 11.2 percent. They will feed the hungry labor market, but strain social services as they embark on new lives.

Puerto Rico was in bad shape even before the hurricane. The island declared a record $74 billion municipal bankruptcy in May, owing in part to the fact that its population had been shrinking for more than a decade as people left for better opportunities. Then on Sept. 20 the storm came, devastating infrastructure and killing hundreds. Recovery has crawled; by Tuesday, the island was still generating only about 64 percent of the power it needs.

Warm Welcome

The weight of the resulting exodus is falling on Florida. Politicians in the perennial swing state have competed to greet the storm-tossed citizens, who could be a crucial voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election.

“Any families displaced by Hurricane Maria that come to Florida are welcomed and offered every available resource,” Republican Governor Rick Scott’s office said in a statement.

Orlando, a metropolitan area of about 2.4 million, is especially attractive to the new Floridians, with the prospect of jobs in the Disney World-fueled hospitality industry, free couches from friends and relatives, and necessities like passable roads and functioning schools. But the mass migration has the city bursting at the seams.

“I tell them, ‘Please make sure you have a place to stay,’” said Ana Cruz, coordinator for Orlando’s Hispanic Office for Local Assistance. “Be with a friend, be with a family member. Because housing is the No. 1 issue that we have.’”

New arrivals are frequently eligible for a stay in a hotel approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but some have found themselves living out of cars.

Tight Quarters

One family was living at a children’s hospital where their daughter was being treated.

“We’re trying to find an apartment to try to establish ourselves in Florida, but the inexpensive ones are all full,” said father Jorge Hernandez, 26, who helped on movie sets in Puerto Rico. He and his family, including his 10-month-old with spinal muscular atrophy, were brought over on a charity’s air ambulance.

On a recent Friday, Osceola County’s Hurricane Maria Reception Center, installed in an out-of-use government building, was bustling with job seekers, crying babies and the elderly. The center is a repository for everything from employment notices (housekeepers, cooks, mechanics) to FEMA-approved hotel listings (Quality Inn, Super 8, Travelodge.)

“Most of the people who have come so far are staying with family and friends, and it’s going to take a while for them to be absorbed,” said David Barnett, human services manager for the county south of Orlando. He said most are planning to remain.

School districts statewide have enrolled more than 8,500 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to Scott’s office. But the state is already critically short of teachers in science, math, English and English as a second language.

Lesson Plans

In Orlando’s Orange County, home to the nation’s ninth-biggest school district, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said more than 2,500 Puerto Rican students have arrived since the storm, and many more are expected. The district planned by plotting out the areas of greatest Puerto Rican concentration, knowing that students would stay with relatives.

The newcomers, many at home in mainland culture and with family support structures, may be easier to absorb than the people who came in the so-called Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought about 125,000 Cubans in about six months. Many had scant English and some were just freed from prisons. And in a benefit to the local economy, the newcomers often bring businesses.

Cruz was among several dozen Puerto Ricans who on Nov. 30 attended a free Spanish-language seminar on establishing businesses. There was strategy and legal advice, sessions on construction and restaurants, and attendees were showered with pamphlets and pens from Wells Fargo and Regions Bank.

Revving Up

“They need access to capital,” said Katia Medina, a business-development coordinator with Prospera, a government-backed nonprofit that helped put on the business seminar. “At the beginning, they’re just creating work for themselves, but eventually they’re going to be creating jobs.”

 

Prospera, which helps Spanish-speaking business people, has seen twice as many would-be entrepreneurs at its Orlando office since the storm.

Cruz likes the idea of building something from the ground up.

“A lot of people are just taking the leap of faith, without any type of plan,” he said. “Not me. I want to have a strategy.”

 

The Rochester City School District and Buffalo has enrolled 1267 new students from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck the island in September, and school officials are preparing for as many as 2,000 total by the end of the school year.

“When you really think about it, 1267 students, that’s two or three new schools,” says Carlos Garcia, assistant to the superintendent. The district is also receiving some students from Texas due to the hurricane in that region of the country earlier this year, Garcia says.

The sudden influx of students has led to a flurry of activity around placement and determining instructional needs for the students, since some speak English well, some speak no English, and some have both language and special education needs.

The districts regularly enrolls students that move to Buffalo or Rochester from other parts of the country or have left a neighboring school district or charter school, but this is a much different type of challenge, Garcia says.

“We’re currently making arrangements to expand classes for bilingual and special education services,” he says. That not only involves finding space for the extra students in city schools, but finding bilingual teachers.

Longtime School of the Arts Principal Brenda Pacheco has left the school to help the district’s central office with its recruitment efforts. Currently, Garcia says, there are fewer people going into the teaching profession, and Western New York is competing for bilingual and special education teachers like most other urban districts.

(By: AP) The State Attorney General’s office is investigating the Buffalo Police Department’s use of traffic checkpoints following a complaint filed by members of Black Lives Matter Buffalo and other community groups in August.

The AG’s office is also investigating BPD’s practices inside public housing developments.

A letter that BLM Buffalo and a community coalition sent to the AG’s office on Aug. 31 stated that BPD have engaged in “a repeated, persistent and widespread pattern of unconstitutional policing, one which has specifically and disproportionately targeted people of color.”

“These tactics, directed in predominantly minority areas, have unnecessarily funneled thousands into the criminal justice system,” the letter stated. 

The letter also accuse the city and oversight agencies of “abdicating their responsibilities to hold individual officers accountable for systematic misconduct, thereby allowing habitual offenders to stay on the police force without sanction”, based on two years of research by faculty and students at SUNY Buffalo and Cornell Law School.

The Buffalo Police Department maintains that any allegation of discrimination is false.

The AG’s Offcie sent a letter to BPD Wednesday, requesting a series of documents including any guidelines given to police officers or their supervisors on how to conduct vehicle checkpoints, how the locations for checkpoints are selected, and the reasons for conducting them. 

The letter also seeks documents on the BPD’s procedures on providing security in Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

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