Latino Endowment Fund Hosts Event on Puerto Rico Hurricanes and Impact on Greater Hartford

The Latino Endowment Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving hosted more than 70 people at the Lyceum in Hartford on Thursday, May 31 to participate in a discussion on the local impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the Greater Hartford region. Focusing on those who had been displaced from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the convening featured a passionate discussion on how residents and organizations worked together under extremely trying circumstances to provide aid to those in need, think about what still needed to be done and how to plan for potential future challenges.

This event came on the heels of a Harvard study that revealed the mortality rate in Puerto Rico rose by 62 percent concluding that the official government estimate of 64 deaths due to Hurricane Maria was a substantial underestimation. Hartford Foundation president Jay Williams’ welcoming remarks highlighted the shocking results of the Harvard study and how the life threatening conditions on the island resulted in thousands of Puerto Ricans coming to Connecticut. Williams mentioned that a substantial portion came to Greater Hartford, which has one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Rican residents in the nation and shares strong familial and cultural bonds to the Island. He also highlighted the fact that this situation occurred at a time when the state continues to struggle with massive budget deficits and Hartford was seeking to avoid declaring bankruptcy.

Williams discussed how the Hartford Foundation established the Respond-Rebuild-Renew Fund in response to the growing needs faced by individuals and families relocating to Greater Hartford, which has awarded a total of $230,000 in grants from the Respond-Rebuild-Renew Fund.

Moderated by Hartford Foundation senior development officer Wanda Y. Correa, the event featured presentations by several officials who have been working with displaced residents from Puerto Rico and the Islands including:

  • Dr. Charles Venator-Santiago, University of Connecticut,  El Instituto for Latino Studies and Department of Political Science
  • Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriquez, Superintendent, Hartford Public Schools
  • Aura Alvarado, Director of Communications and Community Relations, Capitol Region Education Council (CREC)
  • Wildaliz Bermudez, Councilwoman, City of Hartford

The panelists highlighted the struggles displaced residents faced but also discussed how dedicated residents, educators, and nonprofit organizations worked together to provide people with much-needed assistance. Each speaker emphasized the fact that these collaborative efforts were successful despite of the lack of significant and consistent support from the federal government.

Dr. Venator-Santiago shared the preliminary results of a survey funded by a $47,280 Hartford Foundation grant. This survey included responses from 1,300 individuals in the Greater Hartford region in an effort to understand the long-term impact of displacement on the Greater Hartford region. Venator-Santiago discussed how the vast majority of the residents coming to the region were extremely poor with incomes from $0 - $29,050. These families have struggled to obtain housing, food, healthcare and employment, things many poor families in the Greater Hartford region face every day.

Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez discussed the district’s response to the influx of 459 displaced students coming from the islands. She discussed how many were English Language Learners, which was challenging due to a significant lack of ELL paraprofessionals and teachers available in the district. A recurring theme throughout the evening, Torres-Rodriguez discussed how community volunteers, nonprofit organizations, district staff and municipal officials worked to provide the necessities for students and families. Torres-Rodriguez discussed the fact that the challenges of educating and supporting these students will continue as 370 of the over 450 students plan on returning to the district in the fall.

Capitol Region Education Council’s s Aura Alvarado delivered an impassioned presentation on the creation of a Hartford-based welcome center for displaced families and individuals and how the community collectively stepped up to meet their considerable needs. Alvarado discussed how the welcome center effectively used extremely limited resources, powered by 380 volunteers and a handful of community nonprofits to:

  • Raise over $160,000 for family support services, rental deposits, Walmart gift cards for food and other necessities, transportation and other services.
  • Collected and distributed more than 21 tons of food.

She described how painful it was when the center had to close its door once the buildings lease expired in March. Alvarado also expressed her frustration with the lack of a model or plan to coordinate activities between federal and state agencies and local communities.

Councilwoman Bermudez shared painful and inspiring stories about the displace grassroots community efforts of local Hartford residents and organizations who worked to support the displaced families receiving temporary housing at the Red Roof Inn in Hartford. She discussed how local residents cooked meals in their own homes for residents, provided job placement services, childcare and served as advocates helping them obtain state and federal aid. Bermudez discussed the severe stress and trauma these families faced not only having to deal with leaving their homes in Puerto Rico but facing the constant threat by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a monthly, sometime weekly basis that they would have to leave the hotel.

The speakers fielded a variety of questions, many of them focusing on the slow and inadequate response of federal agencies, the potential to open another welcome center, and what is being done to prepare for a potential influx of people from the Island as it still has not restored many of its basic functions and hurricane season has begun.

Among the recommendations offered by the speakers were:

  • Better communication with and between nonprofits
  • A “Navigator,” who could serve as an Ombudsman at state agencies
  • Creation of a disaster relief model/process that can be put together now so that nonprofits and state agencies are ready when the next disaster strikes.
  • Need staff that are both bilingual and bicultural- just speaking Spanish isn’t enough
  • With FEMA deadlines coming in June and families losing subsidies for temporary housing in hotels, they need to be prioritized for permanent housing. Families doubling and tripling up with relatives and friends also need access to permanent housing.

To watch the entire event on video, log onto this link.