Post Hurricanes: Holyoke, Mass., Prepares For Influx Of Puerto Ricans
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Puerto Ricans who can get off the island are. This morning, we've got the story of one town, Holyoke, Mass., and how residents there are getting ready to welcome the storm refugees. Here's reporter Jill Kaufman from New England Public Radio.
JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Holyoke was once a robust industrial city. Paper manufacturing was king here. And like other industrial cities, Holyoke attracted waves of Irish, French-Canadian, German, Polish and Italian immigrants to work in the mills. In the 1960s, Puerto Ricans began leaving the island in large numbers. Many came here to work on farms. Holyoke is now home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans per capita.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Make sure that you've signed the sign-in sheet.
KAUFMAN: Last week more than 60 local and state officials, community activists and health care providers gathered to work on a plan for resettling the Puerto Ricans who will be arriving here soon.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's a lot of trauma around what has happened, and we need to make sure we address that.
KAUFMAN: No one here - not the mayor, the head of the major community health center or any other official - can say how many people will leave Puerto Rico and come to Holyoke. Even families expecting loved ones don't know yet, but they all agree that many are planning to come, and this city needs to be prepared to help them access health care and social services. Many will likely be missing documents lost in the hurricanes. Their kids will be enrolling in Holyoke schools. Eighty percent of Holyoke public school students are of Puerto Rican descent.
School superintendent Stephen Zrike says they have a lot of room at the middle-school level but less at the high-school level and in the elementary grades. He says most of the new students will be classified as homeless. Under federal guidelines, that means the district must provide the money for school uniforms, free school lunches and food to take home, and Zrike has a feeling many students will come without any of their school records.
STEPHEN ZRIKE: Whether it's their IP records, whether it's their immunizations, that's one thing we're in active discussion about. How do we get them enrolled as quickly and - as possible?
KAUFMAN: Schools will have to be ready to play a supporting role in a variety of ways. Some families will move here temporarily, some permanently. Parents may send their kids to live here with relatives while they rebuild homes in Puerto Rico. While the island's deepening economic crisis has spurred migration in the past decade, this disaster will likely speed that up. Even before the hurricanes, 75 new students from Puerto Rico enrolled in Holyoke Public Schools at the start of this school year. Community organizer Betty Medina Lichtenstein is Puerto Rican and grew up in New York City. She's lived in Holyoke for 30 years, and she says the island's economic crisis coupled with the hurricanes' impact will bring even more Puerto Ricans to New England cities.
BETTY MEDINA LICHTENSTEIN: For Puerto Ricans to come here out of the devastation that is going on financially, that was a choice, but it was also a survival mechanism. Maria, that's very different. That's total displacement.
KAUFMAN: But she says the migration is circular.
LICHTENSTEIN: We miss our island so much. We are here for a while and then we go back, and then we come back.
KAUFMAN: To get college degrees or to seek better opportunities for families. Naomi Robeles Rodriguez is a millennial who came to Holyoke with her parents when she was 12. She works as a student liaison at a community center. Most of Rodriguez's family - her aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents - are still in Puerto Rico.
NAOMI ROBELES RODRIGUEZ: In Toarta, where my uncle is, he says a lot of roads are destroyed. We've only been able to speak to him on and off.
KAUFMAN: Last she heard, her uncle's family had enough water and food, but her aunt, who is a nurse and has young children, saw her home completely destroyed. Rodriguez says they all may come to Holyoke for a while, but she expects they won't stay long. While seeking refuge here, their lives are in Puerto Rico. For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.