Puerto Rican Hurricane Evacuees Put Down New York City Roots

Posted on February 5, 2018 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

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Puerto Rican Hurricane Evacuees Put Down New York City Roots

By Julianne Panelli

Catholic Charities NY Director of Special Projects

One-Stop Shop

The City of New York opened a Service Center in East Harlem in October 2017 to assist hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico and other affected areas (US Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida) who came to temporarily or permanently resettle in NYC.  This functions as a one-stop shop where affected individuals can go to apply for multiple benefits in one location.  It has been primarily staffed by City agencies that have helped evacuees apply for City benefits. Through January 25, 2018, the Service Center has seen 2,017 unduplicated households, mainly from Puerto Rico.

Catholic Charities Community Services helped staff the Service Center from October 19, 2017-December 6, 2017.  We assessed over 750 evacuee households and provided food pantry vouchers, referrals for local services, and in-kind assistance (valued at around $20,000) in the form of metro cards and gift cards.  Our St. Cecilia’s office located around the corner from the Service Center serves as a food pantry distribution site for evacuees.

Offering Services as Basic as Food and Important as a Winter Coat

As temperatures dropped and Puerto Rican islanders were suddenly confronted with New York City winters, Catholic Charities organized and coordinated a donation in December of 500 new winter coats from Soles4Souls to the Evacuee Marketplace, where current and former Service Center visitors can pick up new winter clothing and small household items.

Contracting with NYC Human Resources Administration to Fill the Growing Need

The New York City Human Resources program serves hurricane evacuees already in the NYC shelter system or seeking shelter. To date, the program completed an intake with 120 evacuee households referred by DHS and placed almost 50 of these households into hotels paid for by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through February 14th. At that time households will be reassessed by FEMA for continued hotel assistance through March 20th.  

DHS now requires households to go into a FEMA TSA hotel if they are eligible. Households with children enrolled with the NYC Department of Education are not required to do so. 

Our Catholic Charities staff followed up with all clients placed in FEMA TSA hotels.  We are now working more closely with them to

  • Understand their FEMA case status
  • Help them access resources for which they may be eligible
  • Work on housing plans with each of them. 
Puerto Ricans Put Down New York City Roots

The vast majority of clients do not currently wish to return to Puerto Rico and plan on staying in NYC.  This may mean they get referred back to the DHS shelter system when their FEMA TSA ends.

Insiders’ Peak into Broad Lessons Learned for Disaster Response and Recovery

Catholic Charities has engaged in disaster response and recovery activities in our communities since 2001 and has learned countless lessons from this work. 

Here, we focus on just a few of those lessons learned:

1.  Recovery takes a long time and is challenging under the best of circumstances

Most disaster survivors in the United States figure out how to proceed through the recovery process on their own.  They eventually determine what benefits and programs they are eligible to access, what sequence to follow in applying for assistance, what documents they need to prove eligibility, and how to replace those documents that were lost or destroyed in the disaster.

However, even if a disaster survivor has financial security, family and friends to help and to shelter them, and insurance to partially replace what a disaster destroyed, recovery is still a difficult process.  The disaster benefits system is a complex web to navigate and when rebuilding is involved, recovery is a process that can take years. There are still homeowners from Superstorm Sandy who are in “temporary housing” as they repair or rebuild their damaged homes, 5 years later. 

2.  Vulnerable populations often take even longer to recover

When an impacted household has a vulnerability—if a member is disabled, elderly, mentally ill, or financially insecure, or has any kind of legal or financial complication—recovery can become an insurmountable hurdle. 

Often these households face barriers to accessing or receiving services that they cannot overcome without the help of trained case managers who can be their champion, their advocate, and their shoulder to cry on.

Catholic Charities has seen firsthand that vulnerable populations often ask for help later than the general population and tend to need the help of a disaster case manager longer than the general population. In fact:

  • The percentage of clients over age 65 kept rising throughout our Superstorm Sandy program and was nearly 35% of our open cases by the end of the program, about 2.5 times the percentage of elderly individuals in NYC. 
  • In addition, some people become vulnerable because of how they were impacted by the disaster.
  • There are still survivors and rescue workers of the 9/11 attacks who are dealing with the health and mental health repercussions of that disaster which occurred 17 years ago. 

3.  It is prudent to save some funding for the long haul

Recovery takes time, and sometimes needs do not surface for several years, long after the news headlines and federal agencies are gone. 

It is often imperative for social services agencies to save some funds for long term recovery to address those disaster needs that go unmet.

Catholic Charities NY Disaster Recovery Bona Fides
  • Catholic Charities led the effort to coordinate an integrated system of services after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. 
  • When back-to-back Hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit in 2005, we helped hundreds of displaced Gulf-region residents rebuild their lives.
  • After Hurricane Irene hit NY in 2011, we served as a provider agency in 3 lower Hudson Valley counties under CCUSA's federal Disaster Case Management Program and were then chosen by NY State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to serve as the Managing Agency for the federally funded Disaster Case Management Program led by the State.
  • When Superstorm Sandy pounded New York in 2012, Catholic Charities immediately reached out to local parishes to identify needs and provide resource information and guidance. Catholic Charities also provided information, referral, and immediate case management services at three of NYC's restoration centers for 3 months. In addition, we helped set up and staff the Westchester County Emergency Operations Center and the Rockland County Disaster Recovery Center.
  • More broadly, our agency was chosen again to serve as the Managing Agency for the federally funded Disaster Case Management Program to help mobilize comprehensive disaster relief. We were also a provider of disaster case management services in Staten Island, Manhattan, the Bronx, and six of the lower Hudson Valley counties. This program served over 10,000 affected families in 13 New York State counties utilizing 200 case managers from 17 agencies at its peak.
  • When federal funding ended after an unprecedented three years, we continued our leadership role utilizing additional funding sources for staff and client assistance, including a generous grant from CCUSA.

Learn more about Catholic Charities Disaster Relief & Recovery services

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