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Bridgeport Prepares For Influx Of Puerto Ricans Displaced By Hurricane Maria

Ramon Espinosa
Arden Dragoni, second from left, poses with his wife Sindy, their three children and dog Max, surrounded by what remains of their home destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. They lost everything: clothes, household goods, and an old car.

The city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is getting ready for an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation left by Hurricane Maria.  

Scott Wilderman, the CEO of Career Resources, which operates the American Jobs Center for the city, met with other city officials and community leaders on Friday to develop a transition center, where incoming families can get services. 

“We are really looking and trying to figure out what all the needs will be from housing to basic needs to transportation, and of course to employment.”

Wilderman says they are also looking into expanding ESL programs and providing mental health services to help people dealing with the trauma of surviving a natural disaster.

Reports have estimated about 77,000 people will come to Connecticut from Puerto Rico. But Wilderman is not sure how many will end up in Bridgeport.  

“We know that we have a very large Puerto Rican base here in Bridgeport. A lot of the families here are very close. So we are seeing them coming in slowly, but we anticipate more and more will be coming in in the next weeks and months.”

Wilderman says they are also looking into services to support the Bridgeport families who will take in their displaced relatives.

“Anytime you bring in a family member, even for an extended weekend or a holiday, you know it adds stress to a family. So if you don’t have a time frame or understand when a person or an entire family is coming together, how long they’re going to be staying, that also adds a lot of stress and pressure. That’s why we’re trying to alleviate some of that stress.”

Wilderman says their biggest challenge is expectations. He doesn’t want to overpromise and underdeliver on services. He says the best thing Bridgeport has going for it is that everyone is invested in the project. Wilderman says that’s the key to making it work.  

Over the weekend, local activists and community organizers held fundraisers to support relief efforts on the island.   

Rosa Correa is a longtime activist and a founding member of Greater Bridgeport United, which was formed in 1998 to respond to natural disasters in Latin America.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Correa’s birthplace, she says she fell into a depression, “really moping and saddened by the outcome of the harsh reality in Puerto Rico.”

Then her friend Maria Valle, the president of the Puerto Rican Day parade in the city, challenged her to do something. So they reactivated Greater Bridgeport United.   

“I got out of that seat in two seconds honestly, and within a week the mayor had called a meeting, we went to the mayor’s office and the mayor asked me and Maria what are you going to do. Maria and I looked at each other and we said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have a fundraiser on the 30th.’”

So far they have raised more than $40,000. The money will go to the Red Cross for its relief efforts in Puerto Rico.   

Correa says people she knew that couldn’t afford to give, shared what they did have.

“A gentlemen…$50 that I knew was coming out of his rent. And another one bringing his coin collection and so forth and so on.”

Correa was particularly touched by the support of Rabbi James Prosnit of Congregation B’nai Israel.  

“Rabbi Prosnit called me, and he said we’re also going to designate a collection for your efforts. On that day of Yom Kippur, they were commemorating a day of atonement, they were truly thinking of those in need. They collected, when we did the final count, $12,473.”

Correa says Puerto Rico’s recovery will be a long-term effort. Greater Bridgeport United is scheduling more fundraising events, including one in the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport on October 27. 

This story was updated to reflect the anticipated number of Puerto Ricans coming to Connecticut as 77,000. Initial reports estimated 23,000 people would be coming to the state from Puerto Rico.

Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.
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