Central Florida Already Struggled to Provide Health Care and Affordable Housing. Then Hurricane Refugees Poured In.

The region is coping with one of the biggest influxes of Puerto Ricans fleeing the hurricane-ravaged island.
by | December 1, 2017
Stranded passengers, who had to sleep in the airport in Puerto Rico, in the days after Hurricane Maria hit. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

When Hurricane Maria reached the shores of Puerto Rico in September, it arrived on an already ravaged island.

Still recovering from Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier, patches of the island were steeped in darkness as its electric utility worked to restore power to 80,000 residents. The U.S. territory was already buried under $73 billion in debt and slowly crawling its way through a quasi-bankruptcy proceeding. And for years, the economic crisis had been propelling a growing exodus from the island -- between 2005 and 2015, the territory lost 10 percent of its population (446,000 people).

Two months after Maria, these problems have only worsened.

The governor announced in mid-November that power had only been restored to half the island. Hundreds of schools have yet to reopen. People are out of work. And many are still struggling to attain basic needs like food and clean drinking water.

With conditions like those, an average of 1,800 Puerto Ricans have been fleeing to the mainland per day. That totals to more than the number of people who left the island in all of 2015 (89,000), and it’s also more than the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when tens of thousands of Cubans landed in Florida and changed the social, cultural and political fabric of the state.

Of course, not all of the people fleeing Puerto Rico will remain in the U.S. But many will, both in traditional Puerto Rican strongholds like Florida and New York, and in states near migration hubs like Connecticut, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Central Florida, particularly Orlando, will perhaps see the most drastic spikeThe New York Times reports that 168,000 Puerto Ricans have landed in Florida since the hurricanes, nearly half at Orlando International Airport (OIA).

This huge influx over a relatively short period of time could strain state and local government services ranging from housing and health care to employment and education. Agencies' resources will invariably be stretched, as they struggle to keep up with the pace of arrival. 

“We’re one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. We can handle growth. We just can’t handle it in a matter of weeks,” Teresa Jacobs, the mayor of Orange County, Fla., which encompasses Orlando, told The New York Times.

 

Health Care

Health care is one of the most urgent problems facing evacuees, especially as the old and the sick have begun to make their way to the mainland, says Gary Tester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central Florida, which has been part of the relief effort.

“Many of the people who came over initially had the ability to support themselves, so they could get their insurance [from the island] to work here,” Tester says. “Now people are coming over in a more desperate spot. They are requesting spots in our [free] clinics, and I suspect we will see that continue.”

Many of the lower-income Puerto Ricans making their way to Florida previously had insurance through Medicaid. But in Florida, many of them will no longer be eligible for Medicaid because the state did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Adults without children under 19, and those who are not elderly, blind or disabled likely will not qualify for Medicaid in Florida, says Anne Packham, a marketplace project coordinator at the Primary Care Access Network. Their arrival exacerbates a problem that Florida was already facing, she says.

“The resources we need for people from Puerto Rico are the same resources we lack for low-income Floridians who were already here,” Packham says. “We already have people here that are uninsured. But without Medicaid expansion, we don’t have coverage for them.”

But insurance is complicated even for Puerto Ricans who were well-off on the island. Plans they may have had through their employers are often gone, meaning they have to find employment in the U.S. to gain new insurance or to qualify for tax credits on the Affordable Care Act marketplace. Finding employment, though, presents its own challenges for migrants, particularly those with limited English skills.

 

Housing

Even before the hurricanes, Orlando, like many growing cities, was suffering from a serious housing crisis. Currently, there are just 18 rental units of low-income housing available for every 100 low-income families in the area.

When the hurricane struck, Puerto Rican families in need of emergency shelter were placed in hotels. As of Nov. 14, more than 1,100 Puerto Ricans were still staying in hotels. Eventually, families will be forced to find permanent shelter, and the number of them in need is likely to increase.

“Initially, there were a lot of people coming here to stay with family. That has certainly changed now,” says Tester, the executive director of Catholic Charities. “Also, there are people that initially were staying with family that can’t stay there anymore.”

In a letter to the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM), Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs asked the state for direction. She expressed concern that “it is unlikely that we will be able to continue with this emergency housing assistance model” as the holiday season approaches and hotel occupancy in the area increases.

She put the matter bluntly: “Despite our best efforts -- and despite how deeply our community cares for our beloved Puerto Rican families and friends -- we do not have a sufficient supply of housing to accommodate the anticipated influx of U.S. citizens.”

 

Schools

To date, 2,429 students have enrolled in the Orange County Public School District due to either Hurricanes Irma or Maria, according to OCPS spokesperson Lorena Hitchcock. Of those, 1,888 are from Puerto Rico.

“We are the 10th largest district in the nation, so we are used to growth,” says Hitchcock. “And students are enrolling throughout the district, so so far there hasn’t been a huge impact in any one place.”

But, she says, the district currently has no additional money for these students. The majority of hurricane evacuees arrived too late to be counted in the state survey that determines public school funding -- though they could end up later receiving a half-year of funding for them.

Hitchcock, however, is confident that the district can handle the increased need for bilingual and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) certified teachers. All elementary school teachers in the district are ESOL-endorsed, she says, and all other teachers have received some ESOL training. The district has also hired about 20 teachers so far from the island.

Other crises have been handled mainly by private-sector or non-profit donations and help. In conjunction with them, Hitchcock says, the district has been able to distribute school supplies to children arriving from the island with nothing.

Crisis counseling has also been necessary, and likely will continue to be, she says.

The district has requested additional funding from the state to accommodate the influx of students, which they know could continue to increase. The state has not yet made a decision regarding that request.

 

Employment

Unemployment in Central Florida is at 3.2 percent, well below the national rate of 4.1 percent. The Central Florida job market is good -- there are currently about 25,000 open jobs in the Employ Florida database, and the region is continually adding more, especially in manufacturing and professional and business services, says Larry Krause, a spokesperson for CareerSource Central Florida, a public workforce board in the state.

Still, if the influx of migrants from Puerto Rico swells too quickly, it could prove difficult to integrate everyone into the job market.

Some people coming over might need extra services learning English for the workplace. Krause says his organization is partnering with schools to provide that. Some professionals who were lawyers, teachers, doctors or nurses on the island won’t have the appropriate qualifications to practice on the mainland and could end up having to take jobs they’re overqualified for.

So far, Krause says, CareerSource Central Florida has met with 14,000 people coming from Puerto Rico since the storm hit -a definite spike.