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Influx of storm victims continues in Osceola County

Posted on Saturday, October 21, 2017 at 6:00 am

By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Thousands of evacuees from Puerto Rico already have arrived in Osceola County, and local officials predict the influx to continue.
Since a reception center opened at Osceola Heritage Park on Oct. 6, more than 857 families – approximately 3,000 people – have come to get vital services, from identification cards and driver licenses to medical services, according to county statistics.
More than 17 agencies are operating at the OHP receiving center, where Florida

A reception center opened at Osceola Heritage Park on Oct. 6 for hurricane victims from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

identification cards and driver licenses can be issued on the spot. The group includes public, private and nonprofit organizations – from the Osceola County Tax Collector’s Office to the Community Hope Center.
Osceola County School District officials said they already have enrolled some 500 students since the crisis began shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In Puerto Rico, conditions began deteriorating shortly after the storm passed as the island struggled with decimated airports, hospitals and roads.
Officials said they couldn’t predict how long those arriving will stay in Osceola County. But in the meantime, local officials are providing a support network for those displaced by the catastrophic storm.
“Many of these people have lost everything. I see a lot of trauma. You can see the desperation in their eyes. They’re scared and they’re exhausted,” said County Commissioner Viviana Janer. She goes to the reception center most days to observe operations and talk to those still shell-shocked from the upheaval.
With a huge Puerto Rican population already living in Osceola and Orange counties, many storm victims have come here to stay with friends and family while they try to rebuild.
“A lot of these people are doubled and tripled up. Say, if in six months people decide to make Osceola home permanently, our lack of affordable housing is going to become even more clear and that’ll be a big problem.”
Janer and other local elected officials have begun asking for state and federal assistance to handle the influx, which shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.
“I don’t how this is going to play out,” Janer said. “I’m trying to approach this in a bipartisan fashion. It’s not about politics, it’s about human beings. It’s a humanitarian crisis.”
Local, state and federal funds already are being tapped to help those relocating to the mainland, but more is likely needed, officials said.
Top priorities include housing and medical services, as well as employment help. From Lynx to the CareerSource Central Florida, a state-funded agency focused on employment and education.
“We want to feel welcome and be part of the community as long as they’re here,” said County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb.
Echoing Janer, Grieb said the lack of affordable housing here could lead to an increase in Osceola’s already large homeless population, some of whom live on the streets and others in cheap motels along the U.S. Highway 192 tourist corridor.
“It’s a wait-and-see situation, Grieb said, I expect we’re going to see thousands of more people coming here.”