Tampa preparing for a possible population influx as Puerto Rican evacuees arrive in mainland

Agencies identifying possible problems, solutions
Posted at 5:38 PM, Oct 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-13 17:38:46-04

Since the start of October, more than 32,000 people have arrived from Puerto Rico, according to the Florida Department of Emergency Management. Some of these people have nothing to return to and could end up making the Sunshine State their new home. Tampa Bay is preparing for that possibility.

The state has already activated so called 'reception centers' for Puerto Rican evacuees, in Orlando and Miami. These centers offer face-to-face communication with representatives from agencies like the Florida Emergency Management Agency, The Department of Health and Housing & Community Development. The point is to streamline the process of helping evacuees resettling in the mainland.

That hasn't happened here, but nonetheless, Tampa and Hillsborough County is getting ready for a potential population influx.

A fold-up table stands, marked "Maria Assistance Information", next to baggage claim at Tampa International Airport. It seems small but it's the start of a massive effort to prepare for Puerto Rican evacuees looking to make Florida their new home.

"I honestly believe we'll be here for months if not years," said Jennifer Martinez, who newly arrived in a Southwest flight.

She had to abandon it all and packed whatever she could in couple of suitcases. All of them still wet.

"I was worried about my baby," she said. "In that heat with no air conditioning and I suddenly thought 'I've got to get out of here.'"

Martinez is staying with family in Tampa but tells ABC Action News she'll need her own home, a job and a school for her baby girl.

Hillsborough County and Tampa have teamed up with numerous agencies and non-profits to help connect these American citizens with the resources they desperately need. At the moment, it just means a fold-up table full of white bags. Inside them information on recovery centers, a letter from Governor Rick Scott, a HART map and details about benefits from the Department of Children and Families.

Despite no official activation of a reception center in Tampa Bay, these newly arrived Puerto Ricans call a population influx an inevitable long-term effect of Hurricane Maria.

"Everything is destroyed," said Rosa Merced, "We have no water, no electricity. There are people who don't even have food."

Merced is staying with a daughter in Tampa. She says she can't go back to her island and will permanently resettle in another state. As the evacuees arrive, local agencies are having round-table discussions identifying potential problems should a reception center be activated here. Some of those problems are providing housing vouchers in an area already hit with a shortage.

Plus, jobs and medical help. They've also discussed solutions that may alleviate the process such as crisis counseling, waving documentation requirements at schools and having the DMV offer free IDs. For these evacuees, any help goes a long way.

"We are so grateful for the help, because honestly we need it. We need help," said Merced.

Additionally, the Tampa's Housing & Community department is asking any church to consider helping by becoming a shelter. The department typically uses schools but since schools are in session that is not an option.