Hurricane Maria was a breeze for Yara Ramos, compared to feeding her four children with no electricity and or gas to run the generator.
She had no communication with her Orlando family for a week, then her sister-in-law called around the clock to book a flight out of San Juan. Finally, she found a flight for the five family members to New York City, then it doubled back to Orlando.
Ramos was hoping to talk to representatives of Orange County Public Schools about a job. The bilingual computer resource teacher has a master’s degree in curriculum technology and is confident she’ll find a job and enroll her children, ages 1, 4, 10 and 14 in day care and school.
“We’re here for the long term, not a week or a month,” said Ramos, whose husband stayed with their home in Puerto Rico. “It’s been overwhelming, but we’re glad to be here with family.”
Ramos was greeted with a sign that said, “Gov. Rick Scott welcomes you to Florida” and about a dozen tables at a reception center filled with bilingual staffers from the American Red Cross, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Department of Children and Families, and the City of Orlando.
They were helping Puerto Ricans that arrived on six flights Tuesday at OIA, which opened one of two centers after the governor declared a state of emergency to help Florida provide services to the refugees. The other center is in Miami.
“We are ready, willing and able to provide the assistance needed in connecting the travelers from Puerto Rico to the community’s assistance centers,” said Frank Kruppenbacher, chairman of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
The passengers are arriving on four commercial airlines including JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit and Southwest. The first flight arrived at 11:20 a.m. Tuesday and only two families asked for services. As the flights trickled in, more families lined up for help.
Maria Rivera arrived with her husband and two daughters. They flew from San Juan to Tampa Saturday then took a flight to Orlando Tuesday because they heard about the reception center. The occupational therapist said they were looking for FEMA assistance but also jobs in Tampa, so they can be close to family members.
“We were just lucky to get out,” she said. “It was a miracle that my sister found tickets.”
The transition may not be difficult for those that had family members waiting at the concourse to greet them. After all, the City of Orlando has a higher population of Puerto Ricans than San Juan and opened a Hispanic Office for Local Assistance (HOLA) 13 years ago.
“We heard there may be 100,000 Puerto Ricans coming to Florida,” said Ana Cruz, HOLA coordinator. “Most will go back, but many plan to stay and we will help link them to local services.”
She said that while many speak English, the cultural differences are apparent when looking for jobs. For example, in Puerto Rico, resumes are up to three pages long and include a photo and references, while she coaches local job seekers to keep their resumes to one page.
Last week, she helped find three nights in a hotel for seven family members through a donation from the National Latino Peace Officers Association.
But not all the problems are easily solved.
Debra Booth, a legislative assistant for state Sen. Victor Torres, said she was trying to help an individual that arrived at the airport Tuesday that needed dialysis. They had coordinated health care services but had no place to stay.
Booth said the assignment is difficult because of the lack of affordable housing in Central Florida.