State preparing for influx of Puerto Rican evacuees

Connecticut is preparing for an influx of Puerto Ricans coming to live here from the storm-ravaged island, which faces a long rebuilding process.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said that he could easily see the state's Puerto Rican population expanding, possibly doubling in the coming weeks and months. The vast majority of the island still is without power.

Malloy is working with state agencies and local nonprofits to make sure that proper resources are in place to assist any new arrivals.

"While we do not know how many people will leave the island — we are preparing for potentially thousands of evacuees and ensuring that the needs that they may have upon arrival are properly addressed," said Chris Collibee, a spokesman for the governor's office.

Puerto Rican population in Connecticut  - 2009-2016

State emergency management officials are in the process of updating a plan, first developed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, for the mass relocation of residents from Puerto Rico to Connecticut. Malloy is awaiting guidance from FEMA regarding the agency's plans for relocation.

The state also is directing people to 211, its free information and referral service, which can provide them with a list of available resources, including state agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Puerto Rican population as a percentage of total population in Connecticut

An August 2017 study found that hurricanes increased immigration to the U.S., particularly legal immigration from countries that already had large existing populations in the U.S.

Hurricanes cause immediate increases in U.S. immigration on average, the study found, especially to communities where a large number of people from a given country already have settled. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and therefore its citizens are U.S. citizens. According to one estimate, between 100,000 and 200,000 of them could leave the island for the mainland. A total of 3.4 million people live in Puerto Rico.  

"This is not just a Connecticut phenomenon," Malloy said at a sendoff last week for a National Guard unit bringing aid to Puerto Rico. "Florida is going to be impacted. Pennsylvania is going to be impacted. New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, all the states where there are sizeable Puerto Rican populations."

Even before Hurricane Maria, Connecticut — home to 298,000 Puerto Ricans, according to census data — already was seeing an increase in residents from the island coming to live here due to its economic crisis. Puerto Rico is $73 billion in debt.

The economic crisis has led to a large number of people leaving Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland. Between 2005 and 2015, the island had a net loss of about 446,000 people to the mainland, according to a Pew Research Center report. The majority listed job-related and family or household issues as their primary reasons for leaving, Pew found.

Connecticut's Puerto Rican population grew by 36 percent from 2005 to 2015. In New London County, it grew by 66 percent during that same period.

"Our radar is up," said Jeanne Milstein, New London's human services director, of a possible influx of Puerto Ricans to the city. She said her office "will absolutely be a resource and help guide people to whatever they need."

No one has reached out yet. And there's no way to know how many people will come, Milstein said, but the assumption is that most will stay with relatives.

Malloy also has said he anticipates the majority of Puerto Ricans who come here will live with family or people they know. He pointed out that the influx would mean more people attending the state's schools, churches, accessing resources and looking for jobs, depending on how long they intend to stay.

He sent a memo on Sept. 28 to public school superintendents with guidance on how to handle a potential influx of new students displaced from Puerto Rico or other storm-ravaged areas, and advised them to "enroll these students immediately."

The memo points out that the students likely will qualify as unaccompanied homeless youth under federal law, making them eligible for certain services such as free school meals. Students may not have documents because they were lost or damaged, and might not be able to obtain records from their previous schools.Puerto Rican population growth 2009-2015

Tyler Olson, a spokesman for New London public schools, says the district has been communicating "that we are ready and prepared to take on any students that are coming over." The school already is seeing an influx of students and is expecting more, he said. He didn't have a number of students that had arrived.

Superintendent of Norwich Public Schools Abby Dolliver said the district had already received five new students and is anticipating more. A few staff members are awaiting family members coming to live here from the island, she said.

"Everybody's very anxious," she added.

The goal is to register and find a school for the displaced students as quickly as possible. Norwich school officials are ready to provide the students with a variety of support, such as finding them uniforms, coordinating transportation and providing them with trauma counseling.

As for whether the school district could handle an influx of students, Dolliver said, "We are always stretching our resources. That's what we do."

j.bergman@theday.com

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