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Lessons learned after Puerto Rican evacuees came to Philly: ‘I don’t think that we were necessarily prepared for that’

"I don’t think that we were necessarily prepared for that.”

Disaster case managers and Puerto Rican evacuees share their experience and work at Taller Puertorriqueño, on March 20, 2019.
Disaster case managers and Puerto Rican evacuees share their experience and work at Taller Puertorriqueño, on March 20, 2019.Read moreJesenia De Moya Correa / Staff

When thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees fled to Philadelphia after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Caribbean island in September 2017, it was something disaster response officials here had never really experienced before.

“We are used to responding to disasters where they happen, or when there is a presidential-declared disaster elsewhere," said Joseph DeFelice, regional administrator for Philadelphia’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office. “However, there were people coming in day by day, week by week, month by month, with language barriers. I don’t think that we were necessarily prepared for that.”

The Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee — comprising more than 30 community groups, volunteer organizations, faith-based services, and government agencies with disaster response experience and cultural competency in Latino communities — gathered Wednesday morning at Taller Puertorriqueño to talk about accomplishments and lessons learned in the last year as it worked to provide housing, education, jobs, and transportation to the displaced.

Among the accomplishments since its inception, six months after the disaster: 74 families were assisted in locating housing resources. More than 8 million pounds of products were shipped from here to Puerto Rico.

At the same time, the committee recognized there remains no standard for collecting data on the people who were evacuated from the U.S. commonwealth. For example, according to cell phone data, 5,357 people fled from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia between October 2017 and February 2018. In May 2018, there were 3,187 students in Pennsylvania public schools who identified as displaced, and 115 cases registered in the FEMA program that put up families in hotels. Also, by December 2017, 897 families had registered with the Office of Emergency Management’s Disaster Assistance Service Center.

Mabel Negrete, human rights activist and disaster case manager with Lutheran Congregational Services, said the crisis forced local authorities to reimagine the definition and boundaries of the city, and perhaps to reconsider a broader view of what a city might be able to offer or experience.

“There was no preparedness, no central hub where to find a unified support system, until this happened," she said. "So it’s been an experience to teach us that we need to find different ways to view our city in a more transnational experience.”

The upside: Philadelphia’s response to the crisis works as a “unique model” for other cities that could be impacted by natural disasters related to climate change, said Karl Jones, long-term recovery specialist and disaster coordinator for the United Church of Christ, one of the members of the committee. Some lessons he learned:

  1. A working relationship between the city and Latino organizations and traditional federal and voluntary disaster response agencies, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, helped address immediate needs for a disaster that took place outside of the U.S. mainland.

  2. Spiritual and emotional care for the evacuees, especially children, has been important.

  3. There is a lack of quality case management in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania, especially when it comes to disaster needs.

They’ve been learning how to navigate a long-term recovery effort. How do you negotiate responsibilities between the city and the communities for evacuees over the next five years?

“In the ‘mitigation’ process, we have realized that long-term recovery is not the city’s business," Jones said. “It’s the communities’ business. The local government is our partner, but we have to figure out how the community plans to keep taking care of our neighbors."

The committee was formed to provide a single contact for Hurricane Maria evacuees in Philadelphia to receive continued aid beyond initial FEMA assistance.