Recovery

About 200 Young Hurricane Maria Evacuees Remain in New Haven, Conn., for School

Recently, an independent investigation found the Puerto Rico death toll from the storm was estimated at 2,975 people — a much larger number than the previous official estimate of 64.

by Brian Zahn, New Haven Register, Conn. / August 29, 2018
A woman places one of the hundreds of shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol, in San Juan, Friday, June 1, 2018. Puerto Rico's Institute of Statistics announced that it has sued the U.S. territory's health department and demographic registry seeking to obtain data on the number of deaths following Hurricane Maria as a growing number of critics accuse the government of lacking transparency. ( AP/Ramon Espinosa

(TNS) — Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and devastated the island, more than 200 student evacuees are likely to enroll in city schools this year.

Recently, an independent investigation found the death toll from the storm was estimated at 2,975 people — a much larger number than the previous official estimate of 64. Much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was destroyed, and people who live in the island’s mountains atop narrow dirt roads found themselves without power and resources for months.

Two evacuees told a New Haven aldermanic committee in February that having an independent generator on the island made households vulnerable to robbery and violence.

Evacuee Adrian Colon, who had been a small business owner on the island, told alders he feared federal funds running out for housing evacuees, as his special needs daughter needs continuity of services that are only available in America, as schools were shuttered in Puerto Rico after the storm.

Julynette Quiles, an administrative assistant at JUNTA For Progressive Action, which is the only active disaster recovery center in the state for the evacuees, said earlier this week that the organization has “425 active families,” comprising more than 1,000 individuals with approximately 350 students. Not everyone served by JUNTA lives in New Haven.

“Students are definitely in need of school supplies, clothes and coats for the winter. Many are in need of school uniforms,” Cheila Serrano, a JUNTA program manager, said in an email.

Danny Diaz, the school district’s parent advocate who has also overseen the response to evacuees, that there were about 215 evacuee students at the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year, although “it fluctuates.” Although officials expected a number of evacuees would graduate last spring and others would enroll in pre-K this fall, Diaz said there is an element of unpredictability because many of the evacuees are transient.

“We’re getting people who maybe went first to Florida or Pennsylvania, so they didn’t come directly from Puerto Rico. We’re in that triangle,” he said.

In addition to Puerto Rican evacuees, he said, there are students from Central American countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Venezuela. Those students in particular often have higher academic needs, he said, as many do not have experience with a formal education system.

Earlier this year, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office allocated extra money through the Education Cost Sharing grant, the largest state education funding grant, as many evacuees enrolled in the district after Oct. 1, when districts finalized their enrollment totals.

Diaz said evacuees will continue to receive bilingual services and assistance under the a federal grant and with partner organizations such as JUNTA. He said he could not speak specifically as to whether the Board of Education’s decision to lay off more than 20 employees, including school counselors, would create any disruption in service for evacuees receiving assistance.

“The protocols we put in place remain with respect to placement and delivery of supports. Specifically we place based on the needs of the student and available space. We adjust resources as needed to accommodate,” Will Clark, the district’s COO, said in an emailed statement. “We also continue to collaborate with community partners for support. I just helped coordinate a delivery of clothing from a local church into the hands of needy families through one of our support partners for example.”

Rick Fontana, the city’s director of emergency operations, said a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that has housed some evacuees in local hotels is in effect until Sept. 1.

“Case workers are ensuring that those with medical conditions may still be in the program awaiting long term housing,” he said.

Fontana said officials would learn whether that Transitional Shelter Assistance grant is extended by “close of business” Thursday. The grant has already been extended twice.

brian.zahn@hearstmediact.com

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