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Mom, Son Strive To Build a Life in New York - Wall Street Journal

By Melanie Grayce West Dec. 17, 2017 3:39 p.m. ET

A few days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, Jessica Torres, drove her car to the one passable highway, climbed a mountain to get mobile reception, borrowed a stranger’s phone and called her parents in Yonkers.

Between tears, she let them know that she and her 5-year-old son Manuel were safe, and all extended family were accounted for, too. But her home in the central town of Cayey was destroyed.

Her family had a message as well. “They told me, ‘You’re leaving,’ ” she recalled.

 Ms. Torres, 30 years old, and her son arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport with the clothes on their back, personal documents and a few items. Ms. Torres said she anticipates living in New York for some time.

“I see my son doing well here,” she said while at her parents home. “If I can see me being stable here, I will stay.”

There is no official figure on how many people landed in the New York area from Puerto Rico this fall and stayed. Research from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, shows that the majority of Puerto Ricans displaced after back-to-back hurricanes—Irma and Maria—migrated to Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas, avoiding New York, mostly because of the high cost of housing.

According to a spokeswoman for the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about 4,700 displaced Puerto Ricans have checked in at JFK airport’s welcome tables since mid-October. Twenty-five displaced people have enrolled at City University of New York colleges and another 50 are at State University of New York schools.

The New York City Emergency Management reports that some 2,000 people have visited a Hurricane Service Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which also opened in mid-October. There, clients are referred for social services offered by the city or through charities.

On Monday, city officials are expected to announce a donation of about $1.5 million in goods for those who were displaced by Hurricane Maria and are living in the city. Items will include coats, bedding and other household goods. Another $200,000 in donations have been given or pledged, and mostly will support aid organizations working in Puerto Rico.

Ms. Torres has received help from her family, the city and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. Still, a black coat, borrowed from her mother, is just a little too short and her mittens a bit too thin. These are minor inconveniences, she says, noting that the people in her hometown are still without power.

During Hurricane Irma, which hit Puerto Rico in early September, Ms. Torres and her son were without electricity for nine days. When the power returned for a few days, she prepared for Hurricane Maria, abandoning her wooden home for a friend’s cement house. There, she and Manuel weathered the storm and tried to carry on in its aftermath. They returned to Cayey and found their home “blew off,” Ms. Torres said. “It’s done.”

“The hurricane, it take everything and made noise,” Manuel explained.

Ms. Torres endures daily questions from her son about the hurricane. He is mature enough to understand the severity of the storm, and recalls how he swept up branches and distributed water to neighbors.

But there is a trauma in surviving a hurricane, she says, and in adjusting to a new school, peers, home and routine. Teachers have said the kindergartner sometimes is “too playful” or distracted, Ms. Torres said. Other times, he has been afraid to eat lunch in the bustling cafeteria and he is terrified of some alarms.

Ms. Torres is worried about her son falling behind in school. On a particularly rough day, he broke down in tears and asked to return to Puerto Rico. Still, there are things in Ms. Torres’s favor that have made the transition easier.

She and Manuel are bilingual, speaking Spanish and English. A large, extended family in New York helps with child care, and grandparents shower Manuel with attention and small gifts. A cousin in East Harlem is providing a room where they live. She and her son are healthy and they have health care.

Ms. Torres’s employers in Puerto Rico, Advance Auto Parts , helped her get a job within the company at a location blocks from her parents’ home in Yonkers. She likes the work pulling auto parts and delivering them to local garages. Her son’s school isn’t far from her job.

Every night, Ms. Torres says she jots down in her journal a list of “gratitudes” which include: Living one more day, her son’s education, a roof over her head and a job.

Still, Ms. Torres will take a day to “cry it out completely,” she says. She isn’t sure when she will resume her studies in cinematography. She worries about leaning too much on family. The cost of a small studio apartment near her parents in Yonkers, roughly $1,200, is beyond her means. Losing a lottery for a Section 8 housing voucher was a recent low point, she said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in October discouraged evacuees from coming to the city unless they had family, citing the lack of available housing. The city would only be able to provide health care and educational support, he said at the time.

Ms. Torres remains determined. “The reason why I’m here, my son is my priority 100%,” she said.

Write to Melanie Grayce West at

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