Bridgeport A year after Maria, panelists say much still undone
BRIDGEPORT — Puerto Rico got short shrift during and after Hurricane Maria a year ago, and federal policy continues to make things difficult for island residents, panelists in a discussion led by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes agreed Thursday.
Maria’s death toll was 2,975 according to a study by the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University, made public on Aug. 28. Many of the dead were indirect victims of the storm.
“Take, for example,, the diabetic who died because his supply of insulin ran out,” said Himes, a Democrat representing Connecticut’s 4th District. “There are many, many instances of people losing their lives because of the lack of electricity and basic health needs. A lot of times we think of hurricane deaths in terms of people dying from wind, but it’s much more complex than that.”
Participants in the discussion, along with the 30 people in the audience, said the storm has caused a spider’s web of challenges, many reaching into more than a dozen states, particularly Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
It’s estimated that 200,000 people have moved from the island to the mainland since the storm.
Local school districts have had to absorb many thousands of children, and the influx of families has strained affordable housing stock. Stories were told of 10 or more adults and children living in the same apartment.
“Almost overnight, Luis Munoz Marin Elementary School had in influx of more than 170 kids,” said state Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, one of the panelists. “Connecticut is ranked fourth in the number of people from Puerto Rico who came here after the storm.”
Bridgeport received $790,000 in additional money for education from the U.S. Department of Education, the panelists said.
Meanwhile in Puerto Rico, electricity and running water are still not dependable, and officials there fear the population could drop significantly in the coming months and year — particularly if another damaging hurricane rakes the island.
“The power and water situation over there is horrible,” said Pedro Ocasio, 19, who has close relatives on the island. “No sewers, no water, no electricity — it’s a human rights issue. We hear that the power has been restored — that’s simply not true.”
“What are we going to do next?” asked Rosa Correa, coordinator for the Puerto Rican Relief Center. “The people who came here have a lot to offer, and we have to help them help themselves.”
She said the relocated children remain vulnerable.
“I heard the cries of them in the center — they would sit and cry,” she said. “They would just sit there and cry — living 12 to a room, or living with part of their families someplace else. And it’s still a sad state of affairs there. The lights still have not come on for everyone.”
The center, which was located at 2 Lafayette Square, remained open until March, assisting Puerto Ricans who relocated to Bridgeport after the storm. Correa said needs are manifold, both on the island and for migrants here — mental health services, English teachers, activities for kids — the list is a long one.
“Suicides for Puerto Ricans have skyrocketed,” Rosario said.
Laura Robidoux, who represented the 211 help line for Maria victims, noted that they immediately needed winter coats and a raft of other goods and services.
“We fielded over 5,000 calls,” she said.
“Puerto Rico will rise again,” Rosario said. “Ultimately, those who migrated here will want to return, and it’s our job to make sure that when things are rebuilt, that it’s not a land grab for corporations, but it’s for the people.”
Correa reminded the group that Puerto Ricans have fought in every war since 1915.
“And it’s their blood that has helped insure the liberties of all Americans,” she said.