ORLANDO, Fla.—When Félix Martell took his 5-year-old daughter, Eliany, to her first day of school in central Florida this week, they stopped at a McDonald’s bathroom to wash her because they had been living in a car for days.
“I wanted her to be clean,” he said, tearing up.
Two months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, evacuees are streaming off the island, fleeing grim conditions including a widespread lack of power that prompted the resignation Friday of the director of the island’s electric utility. Many of them are landing in central Florida—straining schools, intensifying demand for medical care and pinching an already-tight housing market.
About 160,000 people have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since early October, according to state data, many coming to the Orlando metro area. Some arrivals have enough resources to make the transition smoothly. Many are landing with little cash and no friends or relatives to turn to. More than 26,000 arrivals have sought services at three disaster-relief centers set up after the storm.
“What we’re facing here is something that’s unprecedented,” said John Horan, chairman of the Seminole board of county commissioners. “This could go south very quickly.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has assigned state agency staff to the disaster-relief centers to help arrivals apply for benefits and has suspended occupational licensing fees to help Puerto Ricans work in the state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is working to temporarily place newcomers with the greatest needs in hotel rooms.
“We unfortunately have not been able to meet demand,” said Jeff Hayward, president of Heart of Florida United Way.
Here are two families’ stories.
‘I don’t want this to taint her future’
After nearly two months with no electricity or running water, and a closed elementary school, Mr. Martell decided to leave the island, worried about the condition his daughter was living in. Mr. Martell, 43, scrounged together enough money to buy airline tickets to Orlando, where he had lived a few years recently working as a cook at Applebee’s.
Upon arrival last week, he learned that he and Eliany would have to wait about a week for a temporary housing application to be processed by FEMA. With no other options for housing, he bought bus tickets to find an acquaintance 80 miles north in Ocala.
But when he and his daughter arrived at his friend’s house, there was no room. She already had taken in two other Puerto Rican families, cramming nine more people into a three-bedroom house with her family.
PHOTO: CASSI ALEXANDRA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
All she could offer Mr. Martell and his daughter was a Nissan sedan, which became their temporary home at a rest area along Interstate 75. Mr. Martell created a makeshift bed in the back seat for his daughter, covering the windows with a shirt. He bathed her with towels and soap in a family restroom and fed her bread, milk and snacks he bought with food stamps.
“I tried to explain to her, ‘My love, we’re going to be better here,’ ” Mr. Martell said. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” he recalls her saying. “We’re not always going to be in a car.”
The following day, Mr. Martell enrolled his daughter in an elementary school in Ocala, where she could start classes in kindergarten after the weekend. He also contacted his former employers in the area to inquire about restaurant work, and was told he could start as soon as he got settled.
After dropping his daughter off at school Monday, he found assistance at a family resource center set up for storm evacuees at a facility run by Latino Leadership Inc., a nonprofit in Orlando. Workers were so moved by his story that they secured a hotel room in Ocala, where he took his daughter that night. It is only temporary, but he hopes a FEMA-provided hotel room will come through.
Eliany fell in love with her new school, with its colorful classrooms and big cafeteria, he said. When he took her to the hotel room, she exclaimed, “Wow, there’s television!”—a treat after nearly two months without power.
Mr. Martell said he is confident he will find steady work and get settled as soon as he can figure out a housing solution. But he worries about his daughter, who lost her mother to cancer a year-and-a-half ago. “She is quite strong,” he said. “But no one knows what’s in her mind.… I don’t want this to taint her future.”
‘I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore’
Isaac Díaz and his wife grew increasingly concerned about conditions for their two children at their home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the weeks after the hurricane. Both suffer from asthma, and without electricity to run a nebulizer at home, they had to travel every day to a hospital to use one. At night, the heat bathed the 2-year-old and 6-month-old in sweat and mosquito bites left their skin riddled with pock marks. Finding ice to cool their milk was a daily ordeal.
“I saw them suffering,” said Mr. Díaz, who is studying accounting. “I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore.”
PHOTO: CASSI ALEXANDRA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The 27-year-old security guard came to Orlando, ahead of his wife and two children to make arrangements. He, too, went to the relief center and applied with FEMA for assistance and has lined up a temporary hotel room through Heart of Florida United Way for when his family arrives.
He is also helping his mother, María Báez, 52, who evacuated earlier with her 5-year-old special-needs grandson whom she is raising. She has no friends or relatives in Orlando.
Ms. Báez, a health aide who studied nursing in Puerto Rico, plans to enroll in English classes and try to secure health-related employment. But she can’t look for work until her grandson gets into school. Given his special needs, the Osceola County school district evaluated him to decide where to send him.
Her son, Mr. Díaz, is afraid of not finding housing, and is anxious to start generating income to save for first and last month’s rent for an apartment. He and his wife are determined to get a fresh start in Florida and have no plans to return to Puerto Rico. This week, he started a job cleaning carpets, and he has enrolled in English classes and plans to continue studying accounting.
“You have to think about the future,” Mr. Díaz says.
source: wsj By Arian Campo-Flores