By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Osceola County for more than a month has been operating two reception centers for Hurricane Maria storm victims, one at Orlando International Airport and one in downtown Kissimmee.
It’s been staffed by county employees and social service agencies including the Department of Children and Families, CareerSource Central Florida and the Osceola County School District.
More than 2,999 families have passed through the two sites, getting assistance
with everything from getting a valid Florida identification to enrolling in school to finding work. Local officials say the average is about four people per family.
Housing continues to be the biggest predicament facing the influx of storm victims, most from Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September.
Those coming from the U.S. territory are already citizens, but many are struggling to adjust to life in a new place while still being in shock. Many families are living in temporary accommodation, either with friends or family, or at local hotels and motels, which aid agencies are helping to fund.
More than 1,400 new students, most evacuees from Puerto Rico, have enrolled in Osceola County schools, roughly the equivalent of one school’s worth of students..
Osceola County has not yet tabulated how much the assistance on its end has cost, as the influx continues. But officials said the county is expected to be reimbursed by state and federal emergency funds.
“We’ve been very proactive because we knew we were going to get evacuees,” said County Commissioner Viviana Janer, a native of Puerto Rico herself. We want to make feel everyone feel welcome and help them locally as much as possible. But it’s really a state and federal issue. But we are committed to doing everything we can on local level.”
Janer said the county is working closely with the Florida Department of Emergency Management to get reimbursed for the costs.
Meanwhile, local U.S. Congressman Darren Soto has been lobbying the federal government for assistance for Florida in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the subsequent evacuees coming to Florida from the Caribbean.
Soto, D-Kissimmee, and other members of Congress representing Florida in Washington D.C., last week asked for approval of the “FEMA/Host-State Agreement” that provides direct reimbursement to the state of Florida for costs associated with evacuation and shelter support for Puerto Rican evacuees.
The agreement is funded by Congress and allows FEMA to provide direct reimbursements to Florida municipalities for housing, schools, medical care, transportation and other necessary resources provided to evacuees.
In a letter sent to FEMA and the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Soto and the other said:“Hurricane Maria decimated the Island of Puerto Rico, resulting in the evacuation of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens to the mainland. Despite Florida’s best efforts to assist Puerto Rican evacuees, our municipalities lack a sufficient supply of housing to accommodate the
recent, and anticipated, arrivals of evacuees from Puerto Rico.”