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Hartford Leaders, Agencies Engage In Aid Talks And Waiting Game For Puerto Rican Families

As people fleeing Puerto Rico begin to trickle into Connecticut, an informal coalition of city officials, philanthropists, hospitals, public schools and faith groups have been mobilizing, even as they face a big unknown: How many families will need their help?

On short notice, scores of representatives from a staggering number of local agencies and private institutions gathered late Thursday afternoon in the former cafeteria of Two Rivers Magnet High School, a now-defunct school south of downtown that is being considered as a possible information hub for new arrivals.

Leaders from the Capitol Region Education Council had called the meeting to offer the use of Two Rivers’ empty, leased facility as a hurricane relief center or “one-stop shop” to streamline the intake process for weary families from Puerto Rico who survived Hurricane Maria and need to be resettled. After coping with hourslong lines on the island for food, drinking water and gasoline, local officials say these families should get quick assistance on school enrollment, job leads, medical needs or even tips on how to navigate the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles.

“Collectively, we could get this going very quickly,” said Greg Florio, CREC’s executive director.

But roughly how many Puerto Ricans will seek resettlement is a question that has flummoxed organizers and agencies in the past week as they sort through donations and assess their own resources. Communications systems on the island are still spotty or nonexistent, and commercial airline flights in and out of the U.S. territory are just starting to rev up.

Some local leaders and rank-and-file workers say another wild card is the extent of the state’s response — financially and organizationally — if Connecticut receives thousands of new residents who will have left behind their homes, jobs, schools and most material possessions in Puerto Rico.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has offered humanitarian aid to the island, including a crew from the Connecticut National Guard that deployed a week ago, and the president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system has proposed allowing displaced students from the University of Puerto Rico and the University of the Virgin Islands to enroll in area colleges at in-state tuition rates.

Hartford Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said she plans to meet with the state education commissioner and a group of other urban school chiefs next week to go over Puerto Rico relief logistics in the elementary, middle and high schools.

“We don’t know yet the size of the challenge, but we have thousands of our neighbors and residents with families in Puerto Rico,” Mayor Luke Bronin said. “I think we should expect that many ... are going to be seeking to bring their loved ones to Hartford.”

Seven students from Puerto Rico, five from Florida and one from the British Virgin Islands are newly enrolled in Hartford Public Schools, a district spokesman said Friday afternoon. In West Hartford, an assistant superintendent said the town had recently welcomed one Puerto Rican student.

Despite the capital city’s alarming financial troubles, Bronin and other administrators say Hartford is especially equipped to handle a post-Maria influx because of the social services and crisis interventions that already exist to address the city’s layers of deep poverty and families living with trauma — from food pantries and transitional housing to school-based health clinics and bilingual counselors.

The disaster in Puerto Rico also has brought together a network of potential partners. At Thursday’s meeting in the former Two Rivers, city public health and early childhood officials sat with representatives from the Hartford, West Hartford and East Hartford school systems; Journey Home, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness; Travelers and the MetroHartford Alliance business group; and the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, Catholic Charities and Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

They were joined, in part, by folks from the local Puerto Rican Parade Committee, the big hospitals in the city, Hartford Public Library, Hispanic Health Council, American Red Cross, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A few private citizens and city politicians also showed up to lend their support.

After splitting into groups that discussed everything from bus vouchers to immunizations, many agreed to report back to their organizations and reconvene next week.

Even if the Two Rivers building isn’t used as a relief hub, CREC leaders said the meeting was an opportunity to corral resources, in spite of the state budget impasse that has left many nonprofits and government agencies in limbo. Perhaps a staffer or Spanish-language translator from each institution could devote a few hours a day to the effort, they said.

“Families that are going to be coming will have heard a lot of ‘noes,’ and when they come to Hartford, they’re going to hear a lot of yeses,” CREC Superintendent Tim Sullivan told them.

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