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As Puerto Ricans Arrive In State, Local Leaders Stress That Island Still Needs Help

Yasnery Medina waited at Bradley International Airport’s baggage claim with a pink stroller in one hand and her 3-year-old daughter in the other, taking in a state that, for the next few months, would be home.

Medina and her daughter, Yaidelis Marreno, were among the first Puerto Ricans to arrive in the state Wednesday in what officials expect could be a sizable influx of families leaving their waterlogged, candlelit homes for those of their Connecticut relatives.

Medina, 25, plans to stay with her aunt Miladis Rivera, who was waiting at Bradley Wednesday for her niece.

“I will try to do everything that I can for her,” said Rivera, a New Haven resident. She plans to enroll her niece’s daughter in a local school. They’ll stay with her “as long as they can,” Rivera said.

Medina’s parents are still in their hometown of Canovanas, in the island’s northeast, living in the family’s sodden home. Still without power, they eat dinner by candlelight. “It’s [usually] romantic,” Rivera said, “but not for this.”

A few days before Hurricane Maria made landfall, Medina left Canovanas with her daughter and flew to Orlando, where she stayed with a friend as the storm battered her island.

“Right there, right now, nothing looks good,” Medina said, with her aunt translating. The next few months are fraught with uncertainty, but for now, she said, she’s glad her daughter is safe.

Schools prepare for influx

Hartford-area schools are preparing to welcome Puerto Rican children into their classrooms, said Yanil Teron, executive director of the Center for Latino Progress, but the logistical challenges of receiving the children — many of whom are coming without health forms and transcripts — have been compounded by the state budget stalemate, which has jeopardized funding to some districts.

“They’re going to need help, and with the budget issues and the state possibly cutting funds to some schools, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Teron said. “It’s going to be very stressful for the people who are coming here, and it’s going to be very stressful for the people who are already here.”

The children will need help with everything from learning the language to acclimating to a colder climate, she said, not to mention handling the trauma caused by the hurricane.

“Everything you know has pretty much disappeared, and you’re in a new environment, with new faces — and now you have to go to school," she said.

Housing the families and helping them get around will prove challenging as well. Many of them will likely stay in public housing, she said, which tends to restrict how many people can stay in a unit.

“They already have an anchor, with their relatives being here — but long-term, what is going to happen?” Teron asked.

While most of the focus has been on elementary schools preparing for children’s arrivals, Central Connecticut State University launched a joint project with the Ana Grace Project, an organization created in memory of Sandy Hook victim Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, to develop financial support for students of all ages displaced by hurricanes Maria and Irma and last month’s earthquake in Mexico.

The CCSU-Ana Grace Project Relief Effort will first consist of individual donations collected at this Saturday’s homecoming events, with other donations potentially coming from corporations, said Christopher Galligan, CCSU’s vice president for institutional advancement. The money will provide for scholarships for “eligible individuals from the disaster areas who wish to pursue educational opportunities at CCSU,” according to the effort’s announcement, and the creation of a Welcome Center at CCSU’s downtown New Britain campus to welcome new families to the district, and continued support of the 11 elementary schools under the Ana Grace Project.

“When I was in Miami last week to pick up my mother who had just left Puerto Rico, the sight of all those who had traveled with her was almost overwhelmingly sad,” said new CCSU President Zulma Toro, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Her official inauguration as president, originally scheduled for Friday, was postponed because of Hurricane Maria so that she could help her family on the island. “The families displaced by this catastrophe will need our help when, as expected, many of them reach Connecticut. This fundraising initiative is one way that Central can step up.”

Rallying for Puerto Rico

In downtown Hartford, about 40 people gathered outside of a bank branch on Wednesday, including members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and various Puerto Rican community groups, in one of a dozen rallies across the United States calling for assistance to Puerto Rico.

Rally speakers focused on the need to deliver food, water and other aid to their family members across the island, but they also emphasized the financial aid to rebuild the U.S. territory, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the island’s $70 billion debt would be wiped out, but his advisers walked that back on Wednesday, dismissing any notion of a bailout.

“We’ve been focusing on the debt crisis for a really long time but Hurricane Maria really lifted the veil of the real problem that people are experiencing down there,” Ana Maria Rivera-Forastieri, a New Haven organizer with the Connecticut Immigrants’ Rights Alliance who grew up in Puerto Rico.

The island’s inadequate infrastructure — which worsened during Puerto Rico’s financial crisis — was all but destroyed by the storm, Rivera-Forastieri said, making delivery of supplies already on the island difficult or impossible to deliver.

“The interest rates on a lot of these bonds that were issued are astronomical. That has created more and more debt that will continue to be unpayable as long as they’re still there on the map,” she said.

Some banks in Puerto Rico are being investigated as part of the cause of the debt crisis by a federal panel overseeing the island’s finances. The panel was instituted as part of an emergency relief law passed by the U.S. last year, Bloomberg reported.

“Not only do we need help during the crisis to recover from the hurricane, we also need help to help us recover from this debt which was created by vultures like ... all these banks and all these hedge funds and all these investors,” said state Rep. Edwin Vargas. “We need an assistance package because that debt can be just as much of a barrier to recovery to the people of Puerto Rico as any blown-out trees or fallen roofs or roads that are clogged.”

After his visit to the island on Tuesday, Trump remarked the U.S. is going to “have to wipe that out” in reference to the island’s debt, telling bankers “you can wave goodbye to that.” White House director Mick Mulvaney downplayed the president’s comments on Wednesday and said Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt will not be addressed in a bailout.

“I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,” Mulvaney said on CNN.

Jason Ortiz, the leader of the Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda, has little faith in Trump’s statement.

“I didn’t believe him for a minute after the words were printed. Trump doesn’t know enough about the debt to make an educated comment on it,” Ortiz said. “Even if the island wanted to pay it back, it couldn’t. There’s a number of predatory loans that [have] been implemented.”

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