Supporting Puerto Rican self-evacuees following Maria’s devastation
September 20, 2017 will forever be etched into the memory of every single resident of Puerto Rico. On that day, Hurricane Maria — regarded as the worst natural disaster in the history of the island — made landfall on the U.S. territory. The category 5 storm brought heavy rain and flooding to the island, along with sustained winds of 65 mph (with gusts up to 113 mph). In its catastrophic aftermath, millions of residents were left without homes, power, fuel, food, adequate drinking water or cell phone service. For hundreds of thousands of desperate families, evacuation from the island to the mainland United States was their only opportunity for survival.
Their arrival in western Massachusetts has been met with a new set of challenges. Self-evacuees are arriving without basic necessities such as food, housing or proper clothing for a New England winter. Many are struggling with health issues associated with their lack of food or medical attention following the storm. They are anxious to find work, housing and get their children enrolled in school.
In Holyoke, Enlace de Familias Resource Center has been designated by the Commonwealth as one of 22 welcome centers for Puerto Rican self-evacuees. Since they began arriving in early October, Enlace has been assisting anywhere from 13–23 families each day (approximately 300 people per week). They assist families with navigating the complicated, and often confusing, process of phone calls and paperwork to arrange for temporary housing. They also provide them with food and clothing, and connect them with their community support resources to transition into the area (including Social Security Administration, CareerPoint, UnitedHealthCare, Holyoke Community College and Way Finders).
“Every case is individual,” explains Betty Medina Lichtenstein, Executive Director of Enlace de Familias. “These families have just gone through the absolute worst experience of their lives; and then they come here and have to deal with a lot of uncertainty.”
The Food Bank is collaborating with community organizations throughout the region to meet their most basic need: food.
Since November 14, we have been making weekly deliveries to Enlace to provide food for approximately 125 families per week. The provisions of canned fruit and vegetables, soup, rice, beans, cereal, pasta, peanut butter and other staples afford families nourishment as they get themselves settled. Additionally, our Agency Relations team is connecting families with our local partner agencies so they can continue to access healthy food.
Our SNAP team is making routine visits to Enlace to assist self-evacuees with applying for federal SNAP benefits, the largest domestic hunger program that serves as an important resource for food-insecure households to purchase healthy food. They are assisting families with gathering all necessary documentation in order to receive benefits. Many people are arriving with virtually no paperwork, which makes gathering the documentation extremely challenging.
“Everybody wants to help. But the amount of people to feed is enormous,” says Betty. “We wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do without the support of The Food Bank.”
The impact of self-evacuees on the region extends beyond the city of Holyoke. In Springfield, the Gandara Center/Springfield Family Resource Center is also welcoming people coming to the area from Puerto Rico. The Food Bank has also been delivering food weekly to this center since December. Many of our partner food pantries and meal sites across the region have reported an increase of visits due to self-evacuees.
Based on Betty’s conversations with in-coming families, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other state agencies, she expects many more families will be arriving to the area now that the holiday season has past.
“This is just the very beginning,” says Betty. “We haven’t seen the long-term impact this is going to have.”
As we begin 2018 facing these unprecedented challenges, we are reminded that it is going to take all of us, working together, to strengthen our community. It is through your support that we are able to feed our neighbors in need. We thank you for your continued commitment to our mission. Together, we can ensure that everyone in our region has access to healthy food, regardless of their circumstances.