A year after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across their island, displaced Puerto Ricans in Connecticut are struggling to rebuild their lives and survive day-to-day.
Emanuel Elrivera Mulero, 38, and Ashlyn Gonzales Cabrera, 27, told NBC Connecticut Investigates they lost everything when the Category 4 storm ripped through their home in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. In the days, weeks and months that followed, the couple said they lived Mulero’s mother’s yard, and described waiting in lines more than a kilometer long for water, food and gasoline.
After months of being unable to access medicines for Cabrera’s thyroid condition, and Mulero’s degenerative arthritis and epilepsy, the couple used their savings to buy flights to Connecticut. They were finally able to get medical help through Connecticut’s Husky insurance program, but were stuck living in a hotel and shelter for more than eight months with dozens of other families.
“Anguish, tears, desperation,” Cabrera said through a translator, describing what she saw amongst the people living in those places. “There were children that said to their father, ‘when will we have a home,’” she said.
Connecticut welcomed people fleeing Puerto Rico following the hurricane, and waived some residency requirements to help people like Cabrera and Mulero sign up for public benefits faster, but the shortage of public housing continues to present a challenge.
A UConn study, funded with a grant from the Hartford Foundation, estimates as many as 5,000 storm-refugees remain in Connecticut, and that many of them are living with cash-strapped relatives.
Charles Venator-Santiago, an associate professor of Political Science at UConnand El Instituto, led the study and said 67 percent of their respondents live on less than $25,000 a year.
“People who are living in poverty were receiving people and accommodating the,” Venator-Santiago said, adding many of the families they spoke with reported struggling with insufficient space, food, and job opportunities.
“Two, three families in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment, and they can’t afford it,” he said.
One week ago, FEMA cut off aid to nearly 1,000 families still living in hotel rooms around the country. Puerto Rican community members in Greater Hartford said numerous families remain in local shelters and on waitlists for housing.
A year after the storm ripped their home apart, Cabrera and Mulero are finally moving to a new one – getting off a waitlist and into a modest public housing unit in Portland.
Next on their list is learning enough English to pass a driver’s test, and hopefully land a permanent job.
“We continue to fight, and not to lose faith,” Cabrera said.