Florida communities scramble to help displaced Puerto Ricans

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Florida residents scramble to help Puerto Rico
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Florida residents scramble to help Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, makes a phone call to a doctor for her 10-month-old daughter in a hotel room where she lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 4, 2017. Oquendo and her baby girl Genesis Rivera share a hotel room in Orlando, temporarily paid for by Federal Emergency Management Agency. They fled Puerto Rico in October after Hurricane Maria destroyed their house. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month. "I don't have enough money to move to another place," Oquendo said. "I feel alone, and I'm afraid." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Jose E. Torres fills out a job application at a supermarket after receiving a notification that he does not qualify for aid provided by the state to Puerto Ricans who were affected by Hurricane Maria, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 13, 2017. Torres arrived from Puerto Rico with his wife Luz Brenda Lebron and three children after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. The family lives in a hotel, which provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Luz Brenda Lebron leans on a shopping cart after receiving a notification that she does not qualify for aid provided by the state to Puerto Ricans who were affected by Hurricane Maria, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 13, 2017. Lebron arrived from Puerto Rico with her husband Jose E. Torres and three children after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. The family lives in a hotel, which provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Food is stored in a chest in hotel room where Luz Brenda Lebron lives with her husband and three children, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 13, 2017. Lebron arrived from Puerto Rico with her family after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. The family lives in a hotel, which provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Nydia Irizarry, 45, shows photographs of her daughter Keyshla Betancourt, 22, who suffers from brain cancer, as she receives treatment for cancer at a hospital in Puerto Rico, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 6, 2017. Keyshla came from Puerto Rico in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and 11-year-old brother Felix Rodriguez after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin� Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island where hospitals have been badly damaged, doctors and nurses have emigrated and electricity outages are still widespread. She is now on Florida's Medicaid plan, which pays for her daily radiation treatments. Living in a cramped Orlando hotel room, the family has no plans to return to the island. "We are staying for good," Betancourt said. "I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Liz Vazquez greets her son Raymond Fernandez Vazquez as he arrives to a hotel after his first day at school in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 6, 2017. Liz, her husband and their two sons arrived to Florida after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Keyshla Betancourt, 22, who suffers from brain cancer, takes off her wig after her first radiotherapy treatment, at a hotel, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 11, 2017. Keyshla came from Puerto Rico in October on a humanitarian flight with her 45-year-old mother Nydia Irizarry and 11-year-old brother Felix Rodriguez after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin� Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island where hospitals have been badly damaged, doctors and nurses have emigrated and electricity outages are still widespread. She is now on Florida's Medicaid plan, which pays for her daily radiation treatments. Living in a cramped Orlando hotel room, the family has no plans to return to the island. "We are staying for good," Betancourt said. "I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Liz Vazquez helps her son Raymond Fernandez Vazquez with his homework in a hotel room where they live, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 6, 2017. Liz, her husband and their two sons arrived to Florida after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Waleska Rivera (L), 42, her husband Hector Oyola, 43, and their son Ethan Alejandro Oyola, 9, lie on a bed as Waleska undergoes her dialysis treatment in a hotel room, where she lives with her family, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 7, 2017. The family left Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria struck the island in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican children accompanied by their parents walk from a school bus stop, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Puerto Rican Felix Rodriguez, 11, hugs his mother Nydia Irizarry, 45, before a school bus picks him up outside a hotel where he lives with his family, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 11, 2017. Felix, his 22-year-old sister Keyshla Betancourt Irizarry and their mother came from Puerto Rico on a humanitarian flight in October after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Nydia Irizarry (R), 45, puts her head on her 22-year-old daughter Keyshla Betancourt's, shoulder who suffers from brain cancer, at a restaurant after Keyshla's first radiotherapy treatment, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 11, 2017. Keyshla came from Puerto Rico in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and 11-year-old brother Felix Rodriguez after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin� Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island where hospitals have been badly damaged, doctors and nurses have emigrated and electricity outages are still widespread. She is now on Florida's Medicaid plan, which pays for her daily radiation treatments. Living in a cramped Orlando hotel room, the family has no plans to return to the island. "We are staying for good," Betancourt said. "I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria." REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Keyshla Betancourt, 22, lies on a bed after her first radiotherapy treatment, at a hotel where she lives in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 11, 2017. Keyshla came from Puerto Rico in October on a humanitarian flight with her 45-year-old mother Nydia Irizarry and 11-year-old brother Felix Rodriguez after Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin� Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island where hospitals have been badly damaged, doctors and nurses have emigrated and electricity outages are still widespread. She is now on Florida's Medicaid plan, which pays for her daily radiation treatments. Living in a cramped Orlando hotel room, the family has no plans to return to the island. "We are staying for good," Betancourt said. "I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Miguel Alvarez and his wife Liz Vazquez sit in a hotel room where they live, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 6, 2017. Miguel and Liz arrived to Florida with their two sons after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Waleska Rivera, 42, looks at her sleeping son Ethan Alejandro Oyola, 9, as she undergoes her dialysis treatment in a hotel room, where she lives with her family, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 7, 2017. Waleska left Puerto Rico with her family when Hurricane Maria struck the island in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Puerto Ricans Liz Vazquez (L), Anaitza Soler (2nd-L) and Cyd Marie Pagan (2nd-R) fill out documentation to receive aid from an NGO Salvation Army at a hotel in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Felix Martell, 43, hugs his 5-year-old daughter Eliany outside a hotel where they live in Ocala, Florida, U.S., December 2, 2017. Martell is the primary caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany's education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Hurricane Maria. Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back. "The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island," he said. "I am concentrating on her future." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Hygiene products and other things belonging to Puerto Rican Sergio Diaz, 54, lie on a table in a hotel room where Diaz now lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., November 30, 2017. Diaz lost his house in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Eliany Martell, 5, reacts to being scolded by her father Felix Martell (L), 43, at a launderette in Ocala, Florida, U.S., December 2, 2017. Martell is the primary caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany's education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Hurricane Maria. Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back. "The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island," he said. "I am concentrating on her future." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Sergio Diaz, 54, sits on a bed in a hotel room where he now lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., November 30, 2017. Diaz lost his house in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September. The hotel provides a temporary housing for displaced Puerto Ricans. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, plays with her 10-month-old daughter as she takes a bath in a hotel where she lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 12, 2017. Oquendo and her baby girl Genesis Rivera share a hotel room in Orlando, temporarily paid for by Federal Emergency Management Agency. They fled Puerto Rico in October after Hurricane Maria destroyed their house. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month. "I don't have enough money to move to another place," Oquendo said. "I feel alone, and I'm afraid." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
People take food at a church which distributes aid to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, pushes her baby pram into a hall of a hotel where she lives with her 10-month-old daughter, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 12, 2017. Oquendo and her baby girl Genesis Rivera share a hotel room in Orlando, temporarily paid for by Federal Emergency Management Agency. They fled Puerto Rico in October after Hurricane Maria destroyed their house. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month. "I don't have enough money to move to another place," Oquendo said. "I feel alone, and I'm afraid." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Puerto Ricans attend a Spanish Mass conducted by Father Jose Rodriguez at the Episcopal Church Jesus of Nazareth, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., November 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
Debora Oquendo (C), 43, cries as she leans on her friend at a church which distributes aid to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 9, 2017. Oquendo and her baby girl Genesis Rivera share a hotel room in Orlando, temporarily paid for by Federal Emergency Management Agency. They fled Puerto Rico in October after Hurricane Maria destroyed their house. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month. "I don't have enough money to move to another place," Oquendo said. "I feel alone, and I'm afraid." REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
People buy groceries at Willers Supermarket which specializes in Puerto Rican products, in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S., December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
People buy food from a Puerto Rican food truck in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S., December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
People buy Puerto Rican food at Willers Supermarket which specialises in Puerto Rican products, in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S., December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
People dance as Jibaro music band plays at El Jibarito Restaurant where Puerto Ricans gather, in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S., December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez 
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KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) - At Leslie Campbell’s office in the central Florida city of St. Cloud, the phone will not stop ringing.

Director of special programs for the Osceola County School District, Campbell helps enroll students fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Her job has been a busy one. Since hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean in September, over 2,400 new students have arrived in the district. That is enough to fill more than two typical-sized elementary schools. Dozens more youngsters show up weekly.

“We’re just inundated, from the minute we come in, to the minute we leave," said Campbell, who helps families obtain transportation, meals and clothing.

Across the country, state and local officials are scrambling to manage an influx of Puerto Ricans, a migration that is impacting education budgets, housing, demographics and voter rolls in communities where these newcomers are landing.

Florida, already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, is on the front lines. About 300,000 island residents have arrived in the state since early October, according to Florida's Division of Emergency Management. The influx is nearly 2.5 times the size of the Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans ashore in 1980.

Some Puerto Rican arrivals have passed through Florida on their way to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. Some may eventually return home. But many will not. The island is still reeling months after Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, wreaked catastrophic damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Nearly 40 percent of residents still lack electricity. The economy has been devastated.

For Florida, the inflow of Puerto Ricans is altering public budgets and perhaps the political calculus in a state that President Donald Trump won by a slim margin in 2016. Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are on pace to overtake Cuban-Americans within a few years as the state's largest Latino voting bloc. Many criticized the Trump administration's hurricane response as inadequate.

Politicians are taking notice. Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott has reached out to these newcomers. The state has opened reception centers where Puerto Ricans can apply for food stamps and Medicaid, the federal healthcare system for the poor. Scott has asked for an additional $100 million in state spending to house arriving families, many of whom are doubled up with relatives or packed into aging hotels.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with the question of how to help Puerto Rico, having long rejected the idea of a federal bailout for the insolvent U.S. territory, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May. Congress appears unlikely to grant anywhere near the $94.4 billion the territory's leaders estimate it would take to rebuild.

As federal lawmakers dither, state and local taxpayers are watching the tab to resettle islanders grow.

Statewide, more than 11,200 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island have enrolled in Florida public schools since the storms, according to the governor's office. Most arrived after a deadline that determines state funding based on enrollment, resulting in an estimated loss for local districts of $42 million during the 2017 fall semester, a Reuters analysis shows.

Requests for public assistance climbed by 5 percent in Florida during the last three months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016, according to state figures. Federal food stamp issuance, driven by victims of hurricanes Irma and Maria, jumped 24 percent or $294 million over the same period.

The state is also seeing more extremely ill patients from Puerto Rico.

Keyshla Betancourt Irizarry, 22, came to Florida in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and brother. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island whose healthcare system is in tatters.

Now living in Orlando, she is on Florida’s Medicaid plan, which pays for her radiation treatments. The family has no plans to return to the territory.

"I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria," Betancourt said.

Medicaid patients cost the federal government more on the mainland than in Puerto Rico, because Washington caps Medicaid funding sent to its territories. Such costs will only grow if Congress fails to stabilize Puerto Rico, said Juan Hernandez Mayoral, former director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the territory in Washington.

"You can pay for it in the 50 states or you can pay much less in Puerto Rico," Hernandez said. "The hurricane has sped up the migration."

A Reuters photo essay (http://reut.rs/2AQmzh6) captures images of displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida.

 

CLASSROOM SQUEEZE

Central Florida was one of the country’s fastest-growing regions even before the disasters as Puerto Ricans fleeing a sputtering economy flocked here for jobs in the booming tourist trade. An estimated 360,000 have settled in the area, the largest concentration in Florida.

The Osceola County school district has enrolled thousands of new students in recent years, including nearly 2,700 in 2015-2016 alone. To accommodate them, the district hired more bilingual teachers, converted offices into classrooms, added portable units and built a new middle school. In 2016, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide more funding.

Hurricane Maria has compounded the urgency.

“We have students coming without clothes or records. Some are exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” said Kelvin Soto, an Osceola County school board member. "We’re handling it well, but it’s straining our resources.”

Recent arrivals include Felix Martell and his five-year-old daughter Eliany, who settled in Ocala, Florida, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Orlando. Martell is the sole caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany's education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Maria.

Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back.

“The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island," he said. "I am concentrating on her future."

 

TIGHT HOUSING

A shortage of affordable housing is acute for Puerto Rican emigres.

The Community Hope Center, a nonprofit in Kissimmee, Florida, south of Orlando, has been besieged with requests for shelter, according to Rev. Mary Downey, the executive director.

“People are calling us and saying, ‘we’re homeless now,'" Downey said. "It’s awful. There is simply not enough housing to meet the needs.”

Central Florida housing is a bargain compared to places such as New York or San Francisco, but it is beyond the reach of many newcomers lacking savings or jobs. Homes under $200,000 sell quickly, and Orlando-area rents are growing faster than the national average. Local officials say the situation could worsen as families that are doubling and tripling up eventually seek their own places.

Deborah Oquendo Fuentes, 43, and her 11-month-old baby girl Genesis Rivera share a FEMA-paid hotel room in Orlando after fleeing Puerto Rico in October. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month.

“I don’t have enough money to move to another place,” Oquendo said. “I feel alone, and I’m afraid."

 

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

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