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Hurricane Maria evacuees start over in the Tampa Bay area

By Colleen Wright
JIM DAMASKE | Times Puerto Rican evacuee Shamira Melendez, 4, watches "Finding Dory" on a tablet while her mom Ivana Reyes, 22, talks to representatives from local agencies while her son Jezel Garcia, 1, snoozes in his stroller at the Hispanic Outreach Center Thursday 11/2/2017. - Pinellas County government hosted a bilingual panel Thursday featuring community organizations providing help for local Hurricane Maria evacuees from Puerto Rico. Afterwards a relocation clinic with agencies including Pinellas County Schools, Florida Dept. of Health, Head Start, YMCA, RCS, FEMA, Pinellas County Govt. and others took place Thursday at the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater to provide evacuees a central place to get the information and contacts they needed to help them get settled. Ivana Reyes eventually wants to return to Puerto Rico.

CLEARWATER — After two weeks of no work, no income, no cell phone signal and no power, Bianca Vazquez decided it was time to leave her home in Humacao, Puerto Rico and move to Florida — permanently.

She booked the first one-way flights she could find for herself, her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. Her 2-year-old, Bryan, would stay behind with her parents until she got everything settled.

"I was reluctant," said Vazquez, 33, who arrived Sunday and is staying with her sister in Clearwater, "but it can’t be worse."

Weeks after one of the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record devastated parts of the Caribbean, Tampa Bay has seen a swell of disaster-affected evacuees, mostly from Puerto Rico. School districts, often a first stop for families in need, have tracked the number of student evacuees.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:What Hurricane Maria taught me about Puerto Rico

In Pinellas County, 103 students have identified themselves as evacuees from Puerto Rico and nine have said they are from the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Bill Lawrence, the district’s director of student assignment. Hillsborough County, which has a larger Puerto Rican community, has counted 326 disaster-affected students.

Pasco County has 51 students and Hernando County has 43 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Students are not required to disclose if they are hurricane evacuees, which means the total number of evacuees who have enrolled in the school system in recent weeks may be higher.

The Pinellas school district was one of the local community organizations featured in a bilingual panel Thursday morning at St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus for evacuees seeking help. Representatives from those same agencies were available later that afternoon at a weekly relocation clinic at the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater to provide consultations and register evacuees.

"Because people are coming here from Puerto Rico need everything, our usual services are not enough," said Sandra Lyth, CEO of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute, which is housed in the outreach center. "We’re trying to be proactive and help people get the help they need."

There, evacuees like Vazquez can do it all in one place: apply for housing, WIC nutrition, Medicaid, HeadStart child care services and even free passes for their children to the YMCA.

"We gotta start over," Vazquez said. "Any help we can get is good."

Ericka Reckenwald, an English for Speakers of Other Languages family outreach coordinator with the Pinellas school district, has spent the last week connecting families to resources.

She tells them that they have time to verify their children’s immunization records and get a physical examination with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, families are also eligible for an array of services such as transportation to school and free meals.

One of the families Reckenwald advised was the Vazquezes. On Thursday, Ayaliz, the 11-year-old, spent her first day at school at Oak Grove Middle, and Ryan, the 7-year-old, went to Eisenhower Elementary. They made instant friends with other Spanish-speaking students of Mexican, Venezuelan and Cuban descent.

Ivana Reyes, 22, lost everything in her apartment in Puerto Rico, where the windows blew out. She came to the center on Thursday to enroll her 4-year-old daughter, Shamira Melendez, in Head Start. They also picked up trays of food.

Her mother, Maribel Ortiz, who has lived in Clearwater for three years, accompanied her.

"The plan (for her) is to stay here," said Ortiz, 41.

Karen Boggess spent hours helping a family of five, with three kids under 7 and two dogs, who were living out of their car. She got them into a shelter and helped them apply for FEMA assistance and enroll the youngest child in Head Start.

"Housing was a challenge here before any of this," said Boggess, a performance and evaluation manager at Juvenile Welfare Board.

Zoamy Campos, 25, arrived in Tampa on Halloween with 5-year-old Noah Vazquez and 2-year-old Eleanor Vazquez. She had no running water in her hometown of Aguada, Puerto Rico and came to Largo to stay with her father.

On Thursday, she stopped at the center before heading to a nearby clinic.

"If I didn’t have kids, I would’ve stayed (in Puerto Rico)," Campos said in Spanish. "But it’s different with little kids."

By the end of the day, Lyth, the institute’s CEO, said four people enrolled in WIC and three received referrals from the health department. Regions Bank opened three accounts. Eleven families with 18 children registered with the RCS food bank in Clearwater.

Pinellas County Schools and Head Start consulted three families each, but none were registered on the spot. Lyth had heard that flights out of Puerto Rico were booked through December.

"If you’re really desperate for health care and housing and food, then this is a good place to come," Lyth said. "I think we will see a steady stream of people coming here over the next two to three months."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

How to register

To register a child in Pinellas County Schools, call 727-588-6210. Spanish-speaking representatives are available.

To reapply for benefits, visit myfloroida.com/accessflorida.

For veteran services, call 2-1-1.

To contact the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas for WIC and immunizations, call 727-824-6900.

For elder care, call 1-800-963-5337.

Donations for local Hurricane Maria evacuees can be made to the Pinellas Community Foundation.