- By Sonja Isger Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Several members of Palm Beach County’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce sat with Florida Gov. Rick Scott Thursday to take inventory of the successes and struggles they’ve had helping their brethren in Puerto Rico and those who have left the island and headed to the county in Hurricane Maria’s wake.
It is estimated that 215,000 Puerto Ricans have at least temporarily relocated to the Sunshine State after the devastating September storm, which has left about half the island’s residents still without power 129 days out.
On that note, Scott announced he was signing an executive order to extend the state’s support for Puerto Ricans in response to the hurricane. The declaration allows Florida to continue providing help to the people displaced by the storm.
Studies indicate a majority of those coming to Florida have headed to the Orlando region, with another significant portion relocating to parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. If school populations are any indication, Palm Beach County falls further down the line.
Palm Beach County fell eighth on the list when it came to enrolling students leaving the island in the county’s public schools, according to a study from Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York.
The study predicts more than 470,000 residents will leave Puerto Rico and most will head to Florida. One way to gauge where in the state they’re going is to look at public school enrollment. Of the more than 10,000 Puerto Rican students who have enrolled in the state’s schools since Sept. 20, 2017, half have been in Orange and Osceola counties, the study finds.
Palm Beach County district officials this week counted 315 students who are believed to be hurricane Maria refugees. The school in the county with the most was the Eagle Arts Academy charter school in Wellington, which actively recruited Puerto Rican students and has 33 on its rolls, according to district records. John I. Leonard and Royal Palm Beach high schools each had 12.
While Florida has moved to ease the transition with efforts such as recognizing certain professional licenses issued in Puerto Rico and by opening school doors to new arrivals, the emigres face a significant and daunting problem: affordable housing.
“We already had a housing shortage for people with little income,” Scott said.
Jean Wihbey, provost at Palm Beach State College’s Lake Worth campus nodded in agreement. The lack of housing throws a wrench into any other efforts to help those arriving in the county. And it’s an on-going problem for all of the school’s students.
“We have students who are staying in their cars – it’s not one or two. It’s hundreds,” Wihbey said.
Greenacres Mayor Joel Flores said families are so desperate for a place to stay that he was told of a charter school in the region lured families to enroll by offering a hotel rooms.
“The charter schools are like sharks because they see a check from the state,” Flores said. Charter schools are privately managed, but operate on money the state pays out per student.
Flores said some families have come to Greenacres only to leave when they couldn’t find a place to live.
Despite agreeing on this frustration, the people gathered Thursday also discussed the efforts that have gone into delivering help to the island.
“Four-, five- , six-hundred a day are getting lights. We are not going to leave until all the lights come on,” said Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy. And the stories that come back daily are heart warming, he said, telling of a crew that turned on the power to one woman on her 75th birthday – and brought a cake with them to help her celebrate.
Realtor Ana Barreto, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants with siblings still on the island, shared the fundraising efforts that have left her flush with coolers to send to those who don’t have power – but difficulties getting the donations to the people who need them.
Getting items into Puerto Rico’s ports is not as hard as getting them from the ports to anywhere else, Silagy agreed, offering to help Barreto with the logistics. FPL similarly assisted Big Dog Ranch not long ago, flying empty pet crates to the island to help with the homeless pet situation there.