Holyoke gears up for families escaping earthquake-hit Puerto Rico

  • A Puerto Rican flag hangs within the rubble, after it was placed there where store owners and family help remove supplies from Ely Mer Mar hardware store, which partially collapsed after an earthquake struck Guanica, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn on Tuesday, killing one man, injuring others and collapsing buildings in the southern part of the island. AP PHOTO/Carlos Giusti

  • Ten-year-old Chayr Silva peers from the car he's been living in with his family, parked in an empty lot since a 6.4 earthquake struck Jan. 7, in Guanica, Puerto Rico, Saturday. AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2020 10:33:19 PM
Modified: 1/16/2020 10:32:26 PM

HOLYOKE — More than 1,000 earthquakes have shaken Puerto Rico over the past two weeks, including a 6.4-magnitude quake — the largest on the island in a century — and a 5.9-magnitude aftershock. Hundreds of homes have collapsed and thousands are sleeping outdoors, dreading theirs could be next. 

In Holyoke, where close to half of all residents are Puerto Rican, community leaders are preparing for the likelihood of many displaced families arriving from the U.S. territory to live with friends and relatives.

“We were recently informed that children from Puerto Rico are being enrolled in Holyoke Public Schools,” Betty Medina Lichtenstein, the head of the organization Enlace de Familias, said in an email sent on Tuesday to the heads of 21 local organizations and agencies. “We also know that families in Puerto Rico are getting their financial resources together to purchase airline tickets to come to this area.”

The city already has experience welcoming displaced families from Puerto Rico and dealing with the logistical challenges of thousands of new residents in a short time. Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, some 2,200 people came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico, including 247 children who enrolled in the city’s schools.

Enlace de Familias was at the center of a network of groups that came together to help displaced families after Hurricane Maria. Now that the earthquakes are wreaking destruction in Puerto Rico, the organization is again preparing to help those affected.

Medina has scheduled a network meeting Jan. 23 to solidify communication among the groups, to find out what each organization can offer and to streamline logistical challenges, like tracking forms.

“For us here in Holyoke, this is the time to create our plan on how we are going to work with each other in order to best serve the families,” Medina said.

Medina said local providers learned during past hurricanes that sending pallets of needed goods to Puerto Rico was very expensive. 

“As long as the larger need is in Puerto Rico, we will not be collecting items locally,” she said. “We encourage the public to donate to organizations in good standing in Puerto Rico who have boots on the ground who are constantly assessing the needs of the people in various towns affected like Yauco, Guanica, Guayanilla, Ponce, Peñuelas, etc.”

The city’s schools are also preparing for an influx of new students from the island, some of whom are already arriving. 

In an email, the district’s director of communications Judy Taylor said two students have officially enrolled so far and another 10 are expected for enrollment appointments with the district. 

“While we won't know for sure until someone actually enrolls, we have received quite a few phone calls asking about the enrollment process because cousins, nieces, nephews, friends etc, are getting things in order before their relatives move here,” Taylor said.

In a message sent to all staff last week, the district’s chief social emotional and behavioral learning officer, Mario Florez, gave tips for supporting students with concerns and anxiety about the safety of loved ones on the island, as well as fellow staff members who might be experiencing the same emotions.

Florez noted that a fresh natural disaster could cause new or trigger existing trauma from previous disasters, and that students may be spending more time on their cellphones seeking news from family members.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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