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Home away from home: Puerto Rican evacuees find refuge in the Valley

  • Flooded streets in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

  • Flooded streets in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Submitted Photo

  • Sharon Gonzalez, who this month arrived from Puerto Rico, unpacks in the room she will share with Joy Diaz while they live in Northampton with Ani Rivera. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sharon Gonzalez, who arrived from Puerto Rico last night, unpacks in the room she will share with Joy Diaz while they live in Northampton with Ani Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sharon Gonzalez, who arrived from Puerto Rico last night, unpacks in the room she will share with Joy Diaz while they live in Northampton with Ani Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ineabelle Marty, Joy Diaz and Sharon Gonzalez, all moved her recently from Puerto Rico and now live in Northampton with Ani Rivera. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alondra Villa, who is from Puerto Rico, pauses while studying at the home of Bob and Janet Winston in Amherst, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. The Winstons are hosting Villa and her mother, Merari Gonzalez, for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Janet Winston, left, of Amherst, and Merari Gonzalez, of Puerto Rico, make dinner at Winston's home Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Gonzalez and her daughter, Alondra Villa, are staying with Winston and her husband, Bob, for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bob and Janet Winston, left, make dinner with Merari Gonzalez at their home in Amherst on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Gonzalez and her daughter, Alondra Villa, who are from Puerto Rico, are staying with the Winstons for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bob Winston, of Amherst, chats with Merari Gonzalez, of Puerto Rico, at his home in Amherst on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Gonzalez and her daughter, Alondra Villa, are staying with Winston, and his wife, Janet, for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alondra Villa, left, of Puerto Rico, and Janet Winston, of Amherst, make dinner at Winston's home on Monday. Villa and her mother, Merari Gonzalez, are staying with Winston and her husband, Bob, for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bob and Janet Winston have dinner with Merari Gonzalez, second from left, and her daughter, Alondra Villa, who are from Puerto Rico, at their home in Amherst on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. They are staying with the Winstons for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bob and Janet Winston have dinner with Merari Gonzalez, second from left, and her daughter, Alondra Villa, who are from Puerto Rico, at their home in Amherst on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. They are staying with the Winstons for an indefinite period as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Friday, November 24, 2017

AMHERST — As Hurricane Maria churned over Puerto Rico Sept. 20, Alondra Villa recalls her home shaking and the windows rattling from the powerful winds and rain.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Villa, a third-year college student from Carolina, a city on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico.

But it was after the storm, seeing the devastation it caused, and how getting food, water, medication and gas remained a significant challenge, that Villa and her mother, Merari Gonzalez, decided to get flights from the island to Massachusetts, making reservations using their cellphones despite constant struggles to get a Wi-Fi signal.

Remaining on Puerto Rico for four weeks, Gonzalez said the time was immensely difficult, with no milk or meat, only canned food, and constant worries about the welfare of her three daughters, two of whom remain in Puerto Rico.

“It’s very hard because as a mom you want to have food for your kids,” Gonzalez said.

Both women recently arrived in Amherst, where they are staying with residents Bob and Janet Winston, one of many local families who have taken in evacuees from Puerto Rico.

“We are so grateful that they welcomed us in such a nice way, treating us like their daughters,” Gonzalez said. “We are the lucky ones that we can have good people to receive us.”

“We’re very happy. They are very lovely women, and it’s been a very organic coming together,” Bob Winston said.

Villa and Gonzalez are not alone in arriving in the region and finding a place to stay. In fact, the Massachusetts Parents United and the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute estimate that at least 1,000 Puerto Rican evacuees to the state will be children in public schools, mostly in some of the larger cities, including Holyoke and Springfield.

Joy Diaz and her mother, Ineabelle Marty, arrived in Northampton about two weeks after the storm. They were among the fortunate ones to book early flights from Puerto Rico.

During Hurricane Maria, Diaz said she stayed with her brother and his family because her own house in Carolina was not a safe place to be during the storm.

Once the storm passed, Diaz said she saw firsthand the damage, with her brother’s home surrounded by flood waters, and residents dumping furniture and other debris onto the flooded streets. There were lines to withdraw cash from ATMs and banks, a necessary commodity as stores could not accept credit or debit cards.

‘Climate refugees’

Both families came to the Pioneer Valley with the assistance of Ani Rivera, who runs Archival Matters Inc. and the Valley Frameworks shop in Amherst.

Rivera said he knew immediately after the storm that he needed to step up and find a way to assist in welcoming those he terms “climate refugees” to the area.

“It’s such a disaster down there,” said Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico. “No one would accept this on the mainland.”

Even weeks after Hurricane Maria, rains are continuing to cause more flooding and impede the progress of recovery efforts on the island.

A 17-year resident of the Pioneer Valley, Rivera explained that he was going back and forth to Puerto Rico to visit his mother before she died, when he met Diaz and Marty.

Rivera said it’s normal to extend a helping hand to the people of Puerto Rico. His cousin got him in touch with others who needed assistance, allowing Villa and Gonzalez to join Diaz and Marty in making the area their temporary home.

“They never thought of coming to New England, but I was the one who responded to their plea,” Rivera said.

As a college student, Villa is continuing her studies, including essays and papers, online and over email.

Gonzalez, her mother, who has undergone five kidney operations, said she couldn’t risk an infection on her kidney. She witnessed the medical challenges and the rationing of services, such as those who need dialysis for four hours daily having their treatments spread out, rather than concentrated, and limiting access to oxygen.

At hospitals, surgeries were being done by candlelight and with flashlights.

“People died because of the lack of oxygen, the lack of dialysis,” Gonzalez said. “People are dying in hospitals because of bureaucracy. We know the stories that are happening.”

Gonzalez said many who remained behind are desperate, and believes the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not done enough, including failing to get tarps to families who needed them to temporarily replace their lost roofs.

In some situations, private organizations are doing a better job of getting food and assistance to people. “Red Cross has been very good helping the people,” Gonzalez said.

Diaz, who is part of a muralist group in San Juan, said she was already taking time off from college because of funding challenges in higher education, and that she believes she could potentially stay in the Valley.

“I think here I would have a better opportunity,” Diaz said.

Welcoming area

So far, the reception for Puerto Ricans who have arrived has been positive.

“The treatment we’ve had here is amazing,” Villa said.

Villa points to St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Amherst, where she and her mother recently attended a Sunday mass for Spanish speakers. At the end of the service, several people offered assistance to them.

Gonzalez contrasted this to how she said many islanders felt they were treated by President Donald Trump, who, during his visit to the island after the storm, was caught on camera tossing paper towels toward Puerto Ricans.

“When he threw the paper towels at us we were so offended,” Gonzalez said. “Real Puerto Ricans wouldn’t have taken the paper towels.”

Gonzalez said it is also meaningful to her that Amherst is flying the Puerto Rican flag in front of Town Hall during the month of November.

Diaz said she, too, has benefited from kindness, noting that during a temporary job at a Northampton store she had a conversation with one customer about how she was not prepared for the arrival of winter weather. That customer later returned with a bag filled with sweaters.

“I got wonderful knitted sweaters and she brought a beautiful card with her phone number,” Diaz said. “People here are really the nicest I’ve ever seen. They have been so kindhearted.”

The Puerto Ricans have also gone to the Easthampton Community Center and Amherst Survival Center for necessary supplies, such as winter coats.

No one is certain how long they will remain and whether they will become permanent residents on the mainland. One immediate difficulty is in procuring driver’s licenses through the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Until the state can access their information from Puerto Rico, they must rely on public transportation or others to drive them around.

Diaz said she is attending job fairs and plans to remain in the area for a year and then enroll at the University of Massachusetts as an in-state resident.

Gonzalez plans to head back to Puerto Rico in December to see her other two daughters and figure out what’s next, noting that her daughter who is a nurse is seeking a transfer to a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. If that comes to fruition, Gonzalez can join her there.

Villa said she wants to remain positive, finish college in Puerto Rico and then possibly return to the mainland United States.

“In my eyes I don’t think it’s getting back to normal, or the way things were before Maria,” Villa said of Puerto Rico.