Tamara Rivera-Santiago knows she has to keep a brave face.
But she breaks down in tears several times as she describes the odyssey that took her and her three children, ages 2½ to 7, from Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, to Lancaster County after Hurricane Maria devastated their island home in September.
For the past several months, they’ve been living in a hotel room at the Budget Host Inn on Lincoln Highway East, just outside Lancaster city.
But after Friday, they may be homeless.
They’re at the hotel thanks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s transitional shelter program. Seven other families are staying at the hotel through FEMA — nearly two dozen adults and children in all.
FEMA conducts periodic eligibility reviews. The next one is Friday, and Rivera-Santiago has been told her assistance won’t be extended. The family can’t stay at the hotel without it.
Where will they go? She doesn’t know.
“I try to stay strong,” she said through an interpreter. “I have to do it for me and my children.”
An estimated 500 Puerto Ricans have come to Lancaster County in the wake of Hurricane Maria, primarily to Lancaster city, where the well-established Puerto Rican community makes up about 30 percent of the population.
The majority of the new arrivals are school-age children. In mid-December, there were 72 evacuee children enrolled in the School District of Lancaster. The number is now close to 300, the district says.
The evacuees’ needs vary widely. Some, with help from relatives, have been able to adjust quickly. For others, the struggle to find affordable housing, living-wage jobs and a secure existence remains acute and ongoing.
FEMA’s shelter program has been extended several times; it’s currently slated to end completely on May 14.
The situation has created extraordinary challenges. Realizing the importance of a coordinated response, local nonprofits and Lancaster’s city government have created the Puerto Rican Evacuee Task Force.
The core members are Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Lancaster County, Spanish American Civic Association (SACA), Church World Service and San Juan Bautista Church.
“We’ve been meeting since January,” city Chief of Staff Matt Johnson said.
Initially, new arrivals who need assistance are directed to CAP for an intake interview. Then, CAP and SACA jointly handle case management, referring people to other organizations and programs as needed. Church World Service, with its experience in refugee resettlement, focuses on housing and job placement.
Dozens of the evacuees need direct aid: Money for a security deposit, or for a sudden emergency. To help them, CAP and its partners are hosting a benefit concert titled “Mi Casa, Su Casa” — that is, “My house (is) your house” — from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Tellus360 in Lancaster.
The goal is to raise at least $10,000, organizers said. All proceeds will be used for direct aid of evacuees in Lancaster County.
“We want to help everyone we can,” said Milzy Carrasco, development director at San Juan Bautista.
The road to Lancaster
FEMA says Puerto Rico needs another $50 billion to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. The U.S. territory’s patched-together infrastructure is fragile; daily life remains difficult.
Rivera-Santiago did her best to keep going in the weeks after the storm. But there was no electricity or running water. Families took to washing clothes in a nearby river. She was laid off when the bakery where she worked ran out of supplies and closed. Food was scarce.
She initially flew to Hartford, Connecticut, but wanted to be in Lebanon, where she had lived before. It turned out FEMA didn’t have any locations in Lebanon, but it did in Lancaster. Rivera-Santiago made the drive in January in a car she bought for $300.
Since arriving, Rivera-Santiago has been waking up at 4 a.m. daily to drop her children off with a caregiver and go to work at a Lebanon-area poultry plant. Last month, someone broke into her car and stole her purse, which contained a week’s pay — another setback in what feels like an endless series.
Like Rivera-Santiago, Marinelys Cartagena tried to put her life in Puerto Rico back together after Hurricane Maria.
In her town of Aguas Buenas, she faced conditions similar to those in Barranquitas: No running water, no electricity, lengthy lines for gasoline. She applied to FEMA for aid, but got nowhere.
Since January, she and her four children, ages 1 to 12, have lived at the Budget Host Inn. They, too, are subject to FEMA’s eligibility review and have been told their housing allowance ends Friday.
In Puerto Rico, Cartagena was a special education teaching assistant. Here, her lack of English precludes finding similar work. She enrolled in ESL lessons, but the teachers said she couldn’t bring her 1-year-old to class. He suffers from colic, so she’s fearful of leaving him in anyone else’s care.
She’s looked for jobs, but everything she’s found is third shift, and she can’t leave her children unattended overnight.
“It’s horrible,” she said through an interpreter. She tries to take one step forward, only to take 10 steps back, she said.
Advocates say many Puerto Ricans struggle with FEMA’s disaster aid application process. The agency has denied six out of 10 applications, according to media reports, usually because applicants can’t produce formal deeds proving ownership of their homes or land.
That’s the situation Kimberly Perez and her spouse face. They want to return to Puerto Rico and rebuild their house in Villalba, which Maria destroyed, but without a deed and without insurance, they lack the means.
Perez was pregnant when Hurricane Maria struck. She gave birth a week later in squalid conditions. The hospital’s generators could barely power its lights, let alone the air conditioning. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed through the open windows; down the hall, corpses lay in a morgue without functioning refrigeration.
Her son, Ethan, was born with jaundice, which the hospital no longer had the means to treat. He was admitted to Lancaster General Hospital the day the family arrived in Lancaster, where they are living with Perez’ parents. Without the care Ethan received at LGH, he would have died, Perez said.
A home of their own
The task force is working to find places for Cartagena, Rivera-Santiago and their children to live after Friday.
But Lancaster’s housing market is extremely tight, and finding affordable rentals is a challenge.
Rivera-Santiago said her sons keep asking, “When are we going to have our own home?”
“These families are in crisis,” Carrasco said.