It’s been more than eight months since Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, leaving tens of thousands of people without power for months.
“But for what happened in Puerto Rico, for Hurricane Maria, there was no preparing,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano said through tears. “There are families that lost their homes and some their lives, and so it’s important. They are American citizens and the government has to make sure that we do our best to help.”
For Quijano, helping evacuees is personal.
“My family is from Puerto Rico,” she said. “What I’m doing is representing the individuals here in my district and those that have come here on maybe a short-term basis, or maybe longer, some may stay. And making sure that they are addressed.”
Since September there’s been an increase in the number of evacuees from the island who are making New Jersey their home. Marilyn Mendez is one of them. The mother of two fled Aguadilla, Puerto Rico in October.
“Everything in Puerto Rico was devastating. There was a lot of water everywhere, you couldn’t get out of my home. You had to be evacuated,” Mendez said.
Mendez says she came to Elizabeth after a friend bought plane tickets for her and her children. She says her temporary stay may now become permanent.
“Many people in Puerto Rico are scared because starting again is not easy,” Mendez said. “You have to be brave to do this, but the thing is that when you come here, sometimes you don’t have the help. I’ve been many times to the Social Services Office and its been very hard,” she said.
In an effort to get evacuees the assistance they need, the state has been holding information sessions in areas highly populated by Puerto Ricans. At a meeting in Elizabeth, organizations like FEMA, American Red Cross and the Department of Human Services were ready to assist evacuees.
“So NJ Family Care is like health insurance. People who process applications have been trying to work with evacuees and make sure that what is expected of them is reasonable given their situation given that they just kind of up and left without any kind of documents and things,” said Lauren Koenig, program specialist from NJ’s Department of Human Service’s division for medical assistance and health services.
“We’re trying to have these information sessions in areas where it’s the greatest concentration of evacuees,” said Joseph Geleta, director of NJ’s Office of Emergency Management.
Despite holding six information sessions in six different counties in New Jersey, everyone we spoke with said attendance by evacuees has been the biggest challenge when it comes to getting them help.
“It’s kind of disheartening, but our goal is to try to reach the most we can,” Galeta said. “We try to get the word out through social media outlets and the media outlets to try and get the word out to attend these sessions whenever at all possible,” said Geleta.
Elizabeth Councilman Nelson Gonzalez says about 100 children who fled Puerto Rico with their families now attend schools in Elizabeth.
“Working with the Legislature here, working with Puerto Rico trying to make sure they can get their documents like birth certificates and things of that nature. Whole identities were lost, they didn’t have anything. Registering them in school was difficult initially, but we work with those families,” Gonzalez said.
The next information session is scheduled for May 23 in Camden.