Two western Massachusetts municipalities with large Puerto Rican populations are prepping for a possible large influx of people from the devastated island.
Victor Perez of Springfield was visiting family in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit. To escape the island and return home, Perez said he waited for 11 hours in line to buy gasoline and then waited 17 hours at the airport in San Juan for a flight out.
" If you are going to eat or get gas, you need cash and no one prepared for that," said Perez. " We were in the same destitute situation, not knowing if we were going to eat, and trying to ration food."
As he recounted his ordeal, he began to weep over the humanitarian crisis facing the people in Puerto Rico where power is out and there are severe shortages of water and food.
" People need help. People need help," he repeated softly.
Perez, Thursday, joined members of Western Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico at a meeting in Holyoke to discuss regional relief efforts. The group is a newly-formed coalition of community leaders, non-profit organizations, religious leaders, and business owners who have organized donation drives and fundraising.
The relief efforts are centered in Holyoke, where the population is 50 percent Latino – largely made up of Puerto Ricans – and Springfield with a 39 percent Latino population.
Officials in the two cities are preparing for the likelihood that large numbers of people will leave Puerto Rico and come to western Massachusetts to live with families or friends.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse convened a two-hour meeting Thursday with representatives from city agencies and local social service organizations.
" We documented all the concerns around housing, income, education and health care and how we communicate to residents," explained Morse. " In the coming days we will announce more concrete steps."
In Springfield, Mayor Domenic Sarno said he had directed city departments to plan for an influx of people from Puerto Rico. City Council President Orlando Ramos said he’ll convene a meeting next week to review the city’s preparations.
"We want to make sure we have the resources available and the information available," said Ramos.
Officials say drop-off sites for hurricane relief supplies that opened earlier this week in Springfield and Holyoke have been overwhelmed with donations.
Those donation centers will soon close, according to Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, one of the directors of the local relief efforts.
" We want to send a unified message that although we appreciate the donations, the amount of items have surpassed our expectations," she said. " We know people want to give from the heart, so we ask for financial donations directly to the Freedom Credit Union and the Puerto Rico Relief Fund."
The coalition announced a prayer vigil will be held Oct. 5 in Court Square in downtown Springfield.