Puerto Ricans fleeing island picking Philly as home

Asaf, 9 and Raul Berrios, 64, in the living room of their South Philadelphia home on Thursday, November 9, 2017. They left Carolina, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island.

Victor Torres wasn’t in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit, but the storm has battered him nonetheless.

In the six weeks since, he moved from Florida, where his temporary work and housing dried up, to New Jersey, where he slept on a cousin’s living-room floor, and to Philadelphia, where his sole relative here took him in.

On Tuesday, three days after arriving, he sat at the disaster center the city opened in North Philadelphia for those who have left the island. His father and uncle, who were visiting him in Florida when the storm hit and now can’t return home, were beside him. He hopes to bring his four children and their mother, his longtime girlfriend, here, too, but on Tuesday, he had other things on his mind.

Camera icon Tricia L. Nadolny
Victor Torres Jr. (center), his father Victor Torres Sr. (right) and his uncle Hector Torres (left) moved to Philadelphia after their homes in Puerto Rico were damaged by Hurricane Maria. They have one relative in Philadelphia.

“Something we can eat. We’ve been having just one meal a day. Clothes. I mean we don’t have nothing for winter,” Torres said. “I’m not working. It’s a mess.”

More than 850 others who fled Puerto Rico for Philadelphia have come through the center over the last four weeks, according to city officials. And more are coming every day. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimates as many as 27,000 Puerto Ricans could move to Pennsylvania in the year after Hurricane Maria, second behind only Florida.

Philadelphia officials trying to help the transition have called the challenge unprecedented, especially given the limited funding coming from the federal government.

“We need longer-term housing options and other financial support to help families integrate, at least temporarily, in Philadelphia,” Lauren Hitt, Mayor Kenney’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Our city has never had to beg for these supports before – with every other natural disaster that’s happened on the mainland where individuals affected fled to Philadelphia, we received significant federal support.”

Puerto Ricans have left the island in large numbers for years, many settling in Philadelphia because of its relatively low cost of living and existing Puerto Rican community. About 134,000 Puerto Ricans call the city home. That is nearly 50 percent more than did two decades ago. An additional 23,000 live in Camden, about a third of the city’s population.

The conditions fueling the diaspora, including high poverty and low employment, have only worsened since Hurricane Maria and are likely to drive more people to the mainland in the coming months and years, experts say.

“Unemployment is going higher and higher as we speak,” said Edwin Melendez, director of the center at Hunter College. “That means you should expect, just for unemployment reasons, about two times what was the [normal migration].”

Jose Gonzalez, standing beside a downed bridge in Utuado, Puerto Rico, last week, said the lack of jobs was the main reason he had decided to leave. He said he works in the construction industry but worries that only the politically connected will get contracts as the island rebuilds after Maria. As soon as he can sell his trucks, he plans to join his wife and son, who moved to Newark in August.

“I’m going to leave maybe for a year or two,” Gonzalez said. “I need money. There’s no jobs here.”

Philadelphia officials, while anticipating later waves of evacuees, are trying to meet immediate needs.

At the disaster center, housed at the Rivera Recreation Center, the folding chairs in the middle of the room filled up quickly Tuesday morning. Half a dozen local, state, and federal agencies were set up at tables around the room where people got help filling out FEMA assistance forms, securing food stamps and Medicaid, accessing Section 8 housing, and connecting with medical care.

Housing is a chief concern. Last week, FEMA activated its Transitional Shelter Assistance program, which pays for evacuees to stay at hotels for up to 60 days. Hitt said the city has received no federal funding for longer-term options.

Melissa Wiehenstroer, a FEMA spokeswoman, said that before the vouchers run out many people will have had their homes in Puerto Rico inspected, allowing them to receive additional funding for rental assistance. Each household can receive up to $34,000 in FEMA disaster assistance.

As federal funding slowly materializes, the city has made do with a patchwork of other options.

Raul Berrios and his 9-year-old son, Asaf, were the first in Philadelphia to receive hotel vouchers. They previously were living in a South Philadelphia Airbnb through a partnership between the city and the company.

The father, a 64-year-old cancer survivor with high blood pressure, said he worried about his health and that of his son. He saw no option but to leave his home in Carolina, just east of San Juan. He picked Philadelphia, where Asaf’s mother lives, though she did not have room for them to stay with her.

One afternoon last month, the two sat in the Airbnb’s living room after Asaf returned from his first day at Southwark Elementary School. (About 725 other students from Puerto Rico have enrolled in Pennsylvania schools since the storm, according to the state Department of Education.)

“The teachers are very nice. I’m doing the best I can. The food is pretty good. And I love it,” Asaf said. “And I made a friend. He’s called David.”

Berrios, a musician by trade, included among the few belongings he brought to Philadelphia a steel drum made from the bottom of a trash barrel. Asaf stood at the drum that afternoon, his father tapping the bottoms of enamel pots pulled from the kitchen cabinets. The father picked “Kumbaya,” the campfire spiritual.

“We need to give thanks to God,” Berrios said. “Because we are here.”