Winds of 155 miles per hour. Floodwaters waist-deep and tainted with raw sewage. One hundred percent of the island without electricity. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and left behind fatalities, $94 million in damages and lives that have been forever changed. Remote parts of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, still lack power and sanitary conditions.
“Ever since the storm, I have been saying this is a big historical movement because there will be a population shift. We will be talking about this for years to come,” says Magda Gomez, director of diversity and inclusion at Cuyahoga Community College.
But Gomez isn’t referring only to the exodus of Puerto Ricans (some estimates say that number will include 200,000 families) leaving their island to find relief after the Category 4 storm. Gomez, who was born in Cleveland but lived on the island for several years as a child and experienced a hurricane there, says the disaster has major implications for Northeast Ohio as well.
According to the 2015 U.S. Census, 90 percent of the Hispanic population in Northeast Ohio is Puerto Rican, of which 30,240 live in Cleveland. Add to that Lorain’s population, and it’s one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the continental U.S. After Hurricane Maria, islanders fled to New York City and Florida, where they had family and friends, but also to Cleveland.
“After the hurricane happened, people here were focused on helping the island. And that was noble and had the best of intentions, and they began sending food and nonperishables,” says Gomez. “But we quickly realized that there were a lot of people coming to Northeast Ohio. The older social organizations, like the Spanish American Committee, were overwhelmed and there just weren’t enough resources available. They especially needed help placing people in homes.”
Gomez says Alex Johnson, Tri-C’s president, experienced Hurricane Katrina firsthand and “knew what we should expect and what we could do here” in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Beginning last November, relief funders that included the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation, United Way of Greater Cleveland and Westfield Insurance, plus 25 other community-based agencies, held meetings to create ways to coordinate help for displaced Puerto Ricans. The first order of business was to create Bienvenidos a Cleveland (“Welcome to Cleveland”), a collaboration between Tri-C, The Spanish American Committee, Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Esperanza Inc.
Esperanza is an advocacy group focused on education for Hispanics. Victor Ruiz serves as the group’s executive director in Cleveland. Ruiz also is chair of Tri-C’s board of trustees. His father died in Puerto Rico a few days after Hurricane Maria struck due to a lack of medication. “Hurricane Maria hit us close to home,” says Gomez.
Bienvenidos a Cleveland’s website, tri-c.edu/bienvenidosacle, is a directory of agencies and organizations that provide help in the form of housing, clothing, household items, food, senior help, childcare, job opportunities and more to arriving families. Not only is the website a source for those needing help, but it provides a way to coordinate volunteer efforts.
For example, Gomez recently suggested St. Angela Merici, a Catholic parish in Fairview Park that wants to help with relief efforts, register its services to newly arrived Puerto Ricans on the website. In addition, a Facebook page helps all those involved communicate quickly with each other.
Tri-C and Bienvenidos a Cleveland have spearheaded, guided and participated in a number of Hurricane Maria-related activities:
* The college’s Hispanic Council held a drive that gathered school supplies and more than 200 backpacks for newly arrived Puerto Rican children enrolled in Cleveland schools.
* Tri-C is offering a tuition reduction plan to help students displaced by Hurricane Maria.
* Ten bilingual Tri-C students are interning as translators to help surmount the language barrier facing non-Englishspeaking Puerto Ricans who need social services. The internships were made possible by Tri-C’s Hispanic Council and the Westfield Insurance Foundation, which provided a $26,000 grant.
“Disaster recovery is one of Westfield’s impact areas and, we know that, when people evacuate and relocate, they need the services of our family stability partners. We have been longtime partners with Tri-C and the Spanish American Committee,” says Gretchen Long, a member of Westfield Insurance’s Community Investment Department. “Our [assistance] may have been inspired by recovery, but we also knew these newcomers to Cleveland needed help overcoming major barriers they faced in education, finance, housing and workforce. Whether you decide to go back home or relocate, it takes a long time.
“When we heard Tri-C had provided an intern to help with the language barrier, we said, let’s get more out there to help,” says Long. “Tri-C determined the number of interns and hours needed. We have an established, trusted partnership with the college, and they were in the best position to know what was required.”
* Cleveland schools hired nine new staff members to meet the needs of newly-enrolled Puerto Rican students. Five are teachers who arrived here after the hurricane, and one is a former principal from the island who will serve as a bilingual paraprofessional.
* Realizing displaced families need transportation to job interviews, work, school and medical facilities, RTA has provided 3,000 bus tickets at a 50 percent reduction. Bienvenidos a Cleveland is picking up the remaining tab.
“As the weather gets warmer, we anticipate more people from Puerto Rico will be coming here,” predicts Gomez, adding that more than 13,000 people are expected to relocate to Ohio within the next two years. “They may have family here, but those families are doubling up and straining their own resources. Those families will need help, too. We are just happy to do what we can. We have such great community partners. Helping with this effort was a natural fit for Tri-C.”