and Skyler Frazer
NEW BRITAIN - This week marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s devastating hit on Puerto Rico. But months after the disaster, Connecticut residents are still trying to help those impacted by the storm.
At its highest point, more than 200 families sought refuge from the storm with relatives in the Hardware City. The impact pushed schools, social services and housing to the limit, said Marlo Greponne, director of Planning and Programs for the Human Resources Agency of New Britain.
HRA and several other local entities and individuals including the school system, the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, the American Savings Foundation and state Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, knew early on that supplying food and clothing in the days after the disaster would be the beginning of what could be a years-long effort to get people back on their feet, Greponne said.
“Folks had skills and resources,” Greponne said. “They had a house, they had a car, they had a job just yesterday.”
The powerful storm devastated the island, which was left with no electricity and no potable water. A study from George Washington University said the hurricane and its aftermath led to almost 3,000 deaths.
Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration are still running disaster recovery centers across the island which have helped 800,000 survivors.
“Voluntary agencies and other community partners are increasingly staffing centers to address unmet needs of survivors,” a press release issued by the federal agency Monday stated. “Centers will remain open through this year’s hurricane season.”
Although the U.S. territory has made strides in rebuilding, the work is far from over said Dave Obedzinski, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. The foundation along with the American Savings Foundation, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, Sanchez and HRA formed a partnership to gather about $50,000 in donations to be used for hurricane relief in New Britain and Puerto Rico. The majority of the funds are earmarked for rebuilding, Obedzinski said.
Two community agencies in Puerto Rico are slated to receive the money, but they aren’t ready to apply, he said. “They are still dealing with moving earth and with flooding,” Obedzinski said. The agencies will be able to apply when they are at the point when rebuilding can take place, he said.
Locally, the Salvation Army was given $5,000 of the money raised to help meet the needs of 105 families with 247 individuals who sought refuge from the storm in New Britain with relatives, Obedzinski said. Another $5,000 was given to Community Mental Health Affiliates to provide support groups for 50 families with children to help deal with the anxiety and stress of having to relocate after losing everything in the hurricane. CMHA is providing bilingual clinicians who are teaching the families stress management, mindfulness and other coping skills to deal with the trauma of what they went through, he said.
In the days, weeks and months that followed the storm, HRA New Britain became one of the lead agencies in the local relief effort, offering support and bilingual case management for 123 families, Greponne said. Many of the families were doubled up with relatives in New Britain. Housing continues to be a major issue, she said. The agency was able to get funding from the state Department of Social Services for 37 families with 94 individuals. HRA is still working with 75 families who need support whether it’s with housing, the language barrier or meaningful employment.
Greponne gave the example that one refugee was a police sergeant in Puerto Rico. Now he is serving in a restaurant in the hopes of making ends meet, she said. “The people who have stayed need support to adapt to the socioeconomic conditions here,” she said. “The economic structure here is different than in Puerto Rico, they are not just making a cultural shift but a socioeconomic one as well.”
The influx of families seeking help after the storm is also impacting the relatives who take them in, she explained. Some New Britain residents receive federal subsidies for housing. By taking in family members whose lives have been destroyed by the storm, they are violating federal Housing and Urban Development rules, Greponne said.
“U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and state Sen. Terry Gerratana contacted HUD and helped us with that,” she said. “What did that do to the families who faced tension and felt they had to be in hiding because they took relatives in from the storm?”
In the end it will likely take another few years before the Hurricane Maria relief effort can conclude, she said. “It’s just like any other major incident, Hurricane Andrew in Florida or Katrina,” she said. “It takes times to rebuild.”
With Hurricane Florence making landfall Thursday evening and into today, the hurricane season is off to a rough start.
Tropical Storm Isaac is expected to make its way through the Caribbean this weekend and skirt Puerto Rico.
Associated Press reports wree included in this story.