Study analyzes Holyoke’s response to Hurricane Maria evacuees

  • A damaged Puerto Rican national flag spray painted with the words “Together as One” hangs from the facade of a business, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. AP PHOTO/RAMON ESPINOSA  

Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2020 1:10:14 PM

HOLYOKE — After Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico in 2017, the massive destruction left many of the island’s residents without housing, employment and adequate food.

Those were the primary reasons that several thousand Puerto Ricans fled the island for Holyoke after the hurricane, according to a new study of the city’s response to the influx of displaced people. The study — conducted by Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies and the University of Connecticut-Storrs’ Institute of Latino/a, Latin American and Caribbean Studies — analyzed the city’s experience as a case study for emergency response amid future climate change events.

“Puerto Ricans will continue to leave the island, and Massachusetts, including Holyoke, will continue to be a leading destination, in both the short- as well as medium-term, as the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States and the socio-economic conditions in Puerto Rico remain as they are,” the study states.

The study was a product of the state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, which provided the city a grant for the analysis of its Hurricane Maria response.

Overall, the researchers found that most of those who left Puerto Rico for Holyoke came to the city because they had family or friends living in Holyoke. Key to the successes of the response were communal solidarity among Puerto Ricans, the centralized efforts of the local nonprofit Enlace de Familias and “the solidarity, collaboration and synergy of culturally-competent civic leaders and leaders of agencies who were committed to offering a collective response.”

Because people leaving the island relied so heavily on their relatives and friends, those residents were the most impacted by the evacuees.

“Given the socio-economic standing of Puerto Ricans residing in Holyoke, we conclude that working-class and Puerto Ricans living in or near poverty assumed a disproportionate burden in support of displaced Puerto Ricans migrating to the city of Holyoke,” the researchers wrote.

After the state of Florida, Massachusetts is the second most common destination for those leaving Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria, and will continue to be in the immediate future, the study found. In addition to family ties, the assurance or expectation of assistance was a motivating factor for some displaced people to move to the mainland and to Hampden County in particular.

The report shares widespread praise for Enlace de Families, as well as for the local nonprofits and civic groups with which it worked, for the “one stop-shopping” resource center it created at its Main Street office. There, Puerto Ricans arriving in the area could fill out intake forms, find support, resources and information about public services.

Betty Medina Lichenstein, Enlace’s executive director, was singled out by all respondents to the researchers’ survey for “her strengths and persistent collaborative efforts in Holyoke’s Maria response.” Medina, who is retiring this year, was unavailable for an interview Tuesday.

Such efforts were critical, the study said, because those organizations were the frontline responders as displaced Puerto Ricans arrived in the region, where they relied on social services as a “lifeline.” Even those who had to settle in other western Massachusetts municipalities still rely on resources available in Holyoke.

“Although the non-profit sector in the City of Holyoke responded in commendable ways to the challenges posed by a rapid influx of new residents, state and local institutions lacked the necessary resources to address the ensuing challenges,” the report says.

When arriving in Holyoke, a lack of adequate housing and employment were the biggest challenges that displaced people encountered. A tight housing market in Holyoke further exacerbated those difficulties.

One weakness the study identifies is the lack of data collected about the hurricane response.

“The Federal government’s refusal to share substantive information with the local entities about the Puerto Ricans that they were bringing to the City of Holyoke created obstacles for the response to the crisis,” the report states.

Frustration also came from the lack of integration between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local activities on the ground in Holyoke. A significant barrier to employment was the fact that the state did not recognize evacuees’ driver’s and occupational licenses from the island.

The researchers noted that despite the resiliency and solidarity of Holyoke’s Puerto Rican community, a dearth of resources limited the support they could provide.

“A sense of solidarity among Puerto Ricans is a resource for future responses to a crisis,” the report states. “However, this source of capital may be of limited duration, and dependent on the existing stock of material resources.”

The report recommends that in the future, similar responses create the “one-stop shop” model like Enlace did. It also suggests the use of a “fungible and shareable form” in order to track case management across agencies.

Other recommendations include that local city and civic leaders have access to information and data about the needs of those arriving; that federal and inter-agency agreements be in place to address challenges displaced migrants can face; and that more attention be paid to social service agencies responding to an influx of new residents.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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