Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

As Puerto Ricans flock to Philly, a Katrina transplant remembers

"We're getting a different story now," the translator said. "It's not 'I know someone here.' It's 'Well, we heard they're helping people here.'"

Yaralis Ortiz-Moralez, 29, (right) came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico last week with her young sons. Ilana Refaeli, an interpreter who works at the assistance center, is trying to help her find work.
Yaralis Ortiz-Moralez, 29, (right) came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico last week with her young sons. Ilana Refaeli, an interpreter who works at the assistance center, is trying to help her find work.Read moreJulia Terruso / Staff

More than 500 people from Puerto Rico have signed up for help at a North Philadelphia disaster relief center since Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island Sept. 20. Behind plastic tables, laptops, and stacks of paper, city and relief workers ask the displaced what they lost in the Category 4 storm and what they need to piece their lives back together.

The newcomers might look to Jo Quasney. Twelve years ago, she took a similar walk around tables at the the old Wanamaker School, which sheltered people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Now 72, Quasney was one of about 1,600 people who came to Philadelphia from New Orleans after Katrina. She never left.

"Philadelphia's been good to me," Quasney said from her apartment in Mount Airy last week. "I was at the lowest point a person can be, and the city welcomed me."

Now, Philadelphia is extending its arms again — with fewer resources, but a lot of heart.

When Quasney arrived, Pennsylvania had been designated an official host state — meaning federal money came to help with relief efforts. This time, the state does not have that designation, but Philadelphia is pooling its resources all the same.

"We're helping them figure out everything, from food to clothing to enrolling in school," said Ilana Refaeli, a translator from Manayunk. Refaeli, 38, is usually the first person people see when they come into the center. She moved to Philadelphia from Venezuela with her parents, both Israeli, when she was 11. She knew no English. She tells that to parents who worry about their Spanish-speaking kids.

Philadelphia realized early on it would be a refuge for Puerto Ricans. Its population is about 15 percent Latino, and three out of four Latinos in the city are from Puerto Rico. On the center's first day, Oct. 11, four people came through. On day two, 16 were there in the first half-hour. Friday, there was a line and about 60 people inside by noon. More are expected in coming months as Federal Emergency Management Administration money kicks in and people can buy plane tickets. About two-thirds of Puerto Ricans coming have family or friends to stay with. But many are coming on their own.

"We're getting a different story now," Refaeli said. "It's not 'I know someone here.' It's 'Well, we heard they're helping people here.'"

On Thursday, a young mother of two boys, Yaralis Ortiz-Moralez, 29, walked into the center. She lost her home and her hair salon business in Puerto Rico. Worried about disease spread by rats in the streets, she flew her children here.

"People were dying," she said through tears in the hallway of the service center as her sons, in matching Ninja Turtle T-shirts, held on to her. The family of three is staying in Allegheny with a cousin, but it's cramped: She and the boys share a bed. She called the neighborhood "nasty." She's never seen so many people shooting up drugs.

"It scares me," she said. "I tell them they can't go outside because people are sick, and it's not healthy or safe. I would love to go back, but it's impossible right now."

Daniel Bradley, director of the city's Office of Emergency Management, said that after Katrina, Louisiana formally requested housing assistance that allowed cities and states across the country to be designated as hosts. That let Philadelphia get reimbursed for some of its costs from FEMA, Bradley said.

Puerto Rico has made no such request. Bradley said it was unclear why. Under such arrangements, the jurisdiction experiencing the disaster typically has to cover 25 percent of the bill.

To date, the city has spent less than $100,000 on relief efforts and is covering a lot of the cost through partnerships with nonprofits and corporations, Bradley said. He said the city is working on establishing a transitional-housing program with a nonprofit that would provide more permanent housing options.

The assistance center is a simple, square room with a waiting section. People can sign up for FEMA aid, connect with the Office of Supportive Housing, get information on enrolling kids in school or medical care. There's also the unofficial help provided by those behind the tables, like Refaeli.

Refaeli is trying to find Ortiz-Moralez work at a hair salon. The translator spent part of her day last week texting friends and hairdressers. She offered to be a model for Ortiz-Moralez next week so she can vouch for her work. She's also rallying the Jewish community to organize a school supply and coat drive, since so many people are arriving in shorts and T-shirts with cold weather approaching.

"They come in here, and they have nothing sometimes, absolutely nothing," Refaeli said. "It's hard for them to imagine the future, what it could even look like."

Quasney didn't know about the help that awaited her when she decided to come to Philadelphia. She'd spent time here as a student at Temple University and enjoyed a few summers with her dad, who worked construction. She remembered the city as a welcoming place. So she paid $140 for a ticket on a bus that took three days to get here, her feet still raw and blistered from trudging through flood waters.

She remembers her first hot meal in weeks: eggs, sausage, and rye toast from the Midtown Diner at 11th and Sansom Streets.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority got her into an apartment in Mount Airy, where she still lives. It's a small, tidy place filled with trinkets — elephant figurines, candles — collected from Craigslist and photos of friends she's made since moving here.

She has a cat named Cuddles and a green and blue parrot named Ziggy, who prefers sitting upside down. "He's species confused," Quasney said. "He thinks he's a bat, he barks like a dog."

She takes care of her 87-year-old next-door neighbor, Ruby, the first person to open up to her when she moved here.

She likes to wander around Chinatown and watch people in Rittenhouse Square.

In New Orleans, she'd been working as a Burger King manager and bred parrots on the side. A lifelong lover of birds, she considered the 14 waiting to be sold her "kids."

When the storm came, Quasney had no way of saving them — their wings had been clipped. She still has nightmares about their panicked cries on the flooded first floor as she waited for help upstairs. "I listened to them drown," she said, brushing back tears.

She feels at home now, but the trauma that brought her here lingers. She won't get Ziggy's wings clipped, just in case. She said she owes her adopted city a debt.

"I was lost, broken, at the lowest point a person can be, and the city welcomed me," Quasney said. "It's my home. These people fleeing now, I hope the city is as good to them as it was to me."

Staff writer Tricia L. Nadolny contributed to this article.