The Hurricane Refugees of Amish Country

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A report by Martín Echenique for City Lab.

When Hurricane Maria came for Carlos Rodríguez, he locked himself, his wife, and his two children in a small bathroom in his house in Gobernador Piñero, southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wind whistled through the cracks of the door and threatened to blast through the window; on the other side of his street, the roof of his neighbors’ home was torn off.

“Maria has been the strongest storm I’ve ever experienced,” says Rodríguez. “It just wiped out everything.”

The immediate aftermath was even worse. The power was out, water was scarce, supermarkets closed or empty. Their food rotted in the freezer. For the next six weeks, Rodríguez and his family ate sausages, spaghetti, or crackers only once a day. Lines of hundreds of people waited eight hours to get gasoline. Amid the devastation and chaos, some residents started to go crazy. “We wanted to leave when we saw that they were assaulting our neighbors,” he says. “I could not stay in a situation where there was no power, there was no water, there was no gasoline, there was no work. There was nothing.”

Rodriguez sold his guagua—his old car he had bought a few years ago—for $2,000 and contacted his son, Luis, one of the children from his first marriage; Luis has been living in in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the past four years. And on Thanksgiving Day, he and his family headed to Luis Muñoz Marín airport, east of old San Juan, and boarded a flight for Baltimore, Maryland.

“We are starting from scratch,” Rodriguez told his wife.

The Lancaster connection

Lancaster, Pennsylvania is a small city of 60,000 in southeastern Pennsylvania. It may not seem like the first place that comes to mind when considering where Puerto Ricans might resettle. But Lancaster has been welcoming immigrants for centuries: Most famously, the Amish community that lives in the nearby farms of Lancaster County began settling here in the 1720s, after escaping religious persecution in Europe.

Most Maria refugees have migrated to Florida: An estimated 200,000 former residents of the island chose to move to the metropolitan areas of Miami and Orlando. Many others have gone to New York City and New Jersey. But Pennsylvania, which has the fourth-largest population of Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S., has also received thousands of families. They’ve come not only to Philadelphia, where 8 percent of the city’s population is Puerto Rican, according to the 2010 Census, but to smaller towns—Lebanon, Allentown, Reading, and Lancaster. Almost 30 percent of Lancaster’s residents are Puerto Rican or boricua (Americans of Puerto Rican descent), according to data from the 2016 American Community Survey.

(Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

Lancaster’s new mayor, Danene Sorace, wasn’t surprised to learn that evacuees were heading to town. “I knew immediately that we were going to be welcoming family members into the city, for sure,” says Sorace.

But resettling these new residents has been a challenge, as the city has limited economic and institutional resources. Unlike major cities with deep ties to the Puerto Rican community, like New York City or Orlando, Lancaster is struggling with how to deliver assistance in a coordinated manner and link non-governmental organizations and social services with the evacuees.

“It’s been crazy,” says Yirmares Cuevas, director of Lancaster’s Spanish American Civic Association, which has been helping to support the new arrivals. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my 16 years at SACA.”

Puerto Ricans have been in Lancaster for decades: During the 1960s, the first wave of transplants began to arrive in this part of Pennsylvania, driven by rising housing costs in New York and New Jersey and the promise of industrial jobs. As the Puerto Rican debt crisis deepened in recent years, that migration accelerated. Today, almost 40 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic, and most are Puerto Rican, a proportion second only to Reading.

The region has several attractions for newcomers. Lancaster is one of a relatively modest number of small Rust Belt cities to enjoy economic growth in recent years, thanks in part to its healthy tourist sector and proximity to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and vinyl record stores abound along Prince Street, one of the historic main drags in the city. Hidden inside a building in the center of the city, across the street from the country’s oldest farmer’s market, is Old San Juan, a new Puerto Rican restaurant. It’s one of a handful of visible signs of the thriving boricua community hidden away here.

On Prince Street in Lancaster, the city’s historic downtown is healthy. 

The shape of the Maria migration is driven largely by personal networks, perceived job opportunities, and especially family ties. Lancaster’s existing Puerto Rican community has been a key draw, says Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). “Friends, relatives, or acquaintances are those who transmit the information to those who want to leave the island,” he says. “Many times [relatives] are the ones in charge of receiving newcomers and help them in those first weeks in the new place.”

It’s not clear exactly how many Puerto Ricans have moved to Lancaster since the hurricane. But data from the county’s school district offers a clue: To date, the district has received 108 families and 187 Puerto Rican students since Maria destroyed the island. “In all, there would be between 400 and 500 people,” says Lisette Rivera, coordinator of Families for Transition, a 30-year-old program of the Lancaster school district that has been the focal point for immigrant families who enroll their children in school. The number of families arriving at their office has doubled since last year.

“We didn’t have any plans”

Rodríguez and his family landed at Baltimore/Washington International Airport on the chilly evening of Thanksgiving Day. The plan was to rent a car, but with his limited English skills he got on the wrong shuttle and wasn’t able to get to the rent-a-car facilities located away from the terminal. He had to find a way to get his family to Lancaster, more than 80 miles away. His son called and suggested Uber.

Many of the Maria refugees who relocated to the Northeast U.S. this winter found themselves similarly poorly prepared, starting with the weather. (On Christmas Day in San Juan, it was 80 degrees; Lancaster’s temperatures hovered just above freezing.) With limited resources, the islanders not only arrived without adequate clothing, but they found it difficult to access assistance in obtaining housing, jobs, food aid, and English classes.

“We didn’t have any initial plans or emergency actions,” says former Mayor Richard Gray, who finished his third term in January.

While Orlando and New York have established relief centers, created websites available in Spanish, made communication efforts on social media, and established hotlines to engage with the evacuees, smaller locations have struggled to provide services aimed at refugees, many of whom arrived with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Lancaster, for example, now has a website, but it’s only in English and doesn’t link the evacuees with local social organizations that provide direct assistance; there’s no office, telephone number, or email specifically for newly arrived Puerto Ricans.

The municipal government of Lancaster, as in most smaller U.S. cities, doesn’t really have the capacity to directly provide residents with social services related to education, housing, or work. “The city’s never had that capacity because of the structure that local government has here,” says Sorace. “Our lane is kind of narrow. But what we can do is make sure that the connections are being made to the organization who can.”

In his first days in Lancaster, Rodriguez didn’t know where to go or who to ask for help. Most of the information was in English, and it was scattered across multiple different sources. Searching for jobs was a challenge, because of the language barrier. He finally found assistance at a local Catholic church, San Juan Bautista, where one of the church’s assistants, Edna Lopez, guided him through the process of navigating the school district and eventually hired him as a maintenance worker at the church.

So, how does a small city deal with hundreds of people who arrive (legally) after having been displaced by a natural disaster, like any other U.S. citizen would? One answer lies in social organizations like SACA, which has so far assisted 95 Puerto Rican families in navigating the city.

For many of these newcomers, the biggest challenge is housing. The average monthly rent for a home in Lancaster exceeds $1,100, and many landlords ask for up to two months of deposit and credit reports—daunting barriers for families that have literally lost everything. The waiting list for federal housing assistance is no longer counted in months, but in years, according to Gray.

Lisette Rivera, from Lancaster’s school district, shows an emergency basket provided to Puerto Rican families. 

The lack of coordination between local, state, and federal governments—plus the various nonprofits involved—isn’t helping, either. According to SACA’s Cuevas, local nonprofits, the school district, and agencies like FEMA sent people from one place to another, and evacuees had problems understanding the role of the mayor and the local government; it was SACA, she says, that had to start functioning as the main point of entry to support incoming Puerto Rican families since January 22, along with churches and social organizations.

“I honestly have no idea how it works with the local government,” says Cuevas. “It’s definitely a challenge. It’s not organized. They know we’ll take care of this whether the money is there or not. And I think that we’ve done this for so many years they’re just used to the fact it will be taken care of.”

The uphill road

It’s been more than two months since Carlos Rodríguez and his family arrived in Lancaster. His children, who are 11 and 7 years old, are now going to school and learning English. His wife works an early shift in a soda factory; her days begin at 4 am.

Their combined income from Carlos’ job at church isn’t enough for them to move out of Carlos’ son’s house, he says. “Right now, to get a house, they ask for a credit check. A person like me, who after the storm was left without a job, paid his mortgage a little behind, and comes here [to Lancaster], and they ask you for that—how do they do that? Don’t they have a heart?”

His problems are common among other recent arrivals from Puerto Rico, as he has seen. Earlier that day, he says, he met a woman who was desperate to get a job, but she did not know where to look for one, or how to move around the city. Lancaster has a limited bus system with only a few routes in the city. “The bus does not work well,” says Rodriguez, who was used to driving everywhere he needed to go on the island. Now, he spends his days walking. When he had to get from his son’s house to the post office recently, it took him two hours to walk there, each way.

Beyond the immediate needs of housing and work, the psychological trauma facing newly arrived Puerto Ricans is one of the harshest realities tied to the hurricane exodus. Escaping the island has not spared the evacuees of Lancaster from Maria’s mental health toll.

“It’s not just walking into the door and needing food stamps, filling an application, getting them and done, you’re happy,” says Cuevas. “It’s the language barrier, [the fact that] your degree that is not valid in Pennsylvania, the housing, the job thing, the weather. It’s ‘What do I do?’ It’s starting your whole life again. It’s thinking what you left behind.”

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