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October 16, 2018, by Monica Mayer

UCF and United Way 2018 Expert Panel: Serving our Latino Community

It was just over a year ago that Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused massive damage to property, lives, and livelihoods throughout both Florida and the Caribbean. While most Central Floridians are aware of the hurricanes’ devastating impact on Puerto Rico, they may not know that the island is only beginning to recover from the storms.

On October 16, 2018, UCF and the Heart of Florida United Way co-hosted an expert panel titled “Serving our Latino Community” to discuss the impact of the storms on Puerto Ricans on the island and in Central Florida. The panel, which is an annual UCF United Way Campaign event, traditionally focuses on an issue that affects both the UCF community and the community served by Heart of Florida United Way. This year’s topic was selected to highlight the consequences of the hurricanes for the Puerto Rican community and the ongoing recovery efforts.

UCF student Jose Rivera served as the panel’s moderator. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Jose is the founder and former president of the Puerto Rican Student Association at UCF. He now serves as the executive director of the National Puerto Rican Student Coalition, which he founded to develop a network connecting Puerto Rican student organizations in universities across the nation.

The three panelists are all Puerto Rican and have close ties with the island:

  • Fernando Rivera, Associate Professor of Sociology at UCF and Director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at UCF
  • Cyndia Muñiz, Assistant Director of Hispanic Initiatives at UCF and HSI Lead
  • Raquel McCormick, Operations Director of Resource Development for Heart of Florida United Way

The panelists responded to three questions regarding the impact of the hurricanes, relief efforts and community support, and partnerships to serve the Central Florida Puerto Rican and Latino communities.

Impact of the Hurricanes on Puerto Rico and Central Florida

After Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico was just beginning its recovery phase when Hurricane Maria arrived shortly afterwards. Dr. Fernando Rivera stressed how being hit by two storms in a row was a “complete catastrophe” for Puerto Rico. In addition to injury, illness, and extensive structural damage, Puerto Ricans were confronted with a total lack of electronic communication—the island experienced complete power grid failure, leaving 100 percent of residents without electricity. Raquel McCormick made a similar observation, pointing out that on top of the other issues they faced, Puerto Ricans were unable to call or text family and friends on the island or the mainland, as the storm almost entirely wiped out cellular service.

The hurricanes had an emotional toll as well. McCormick described how Puerto Ricans living on the island faced huge amounts of stress both during the storm, when the wind was roaring and doors were slamming, and after the storm, when people realized that their community was destroyed. The trauma they experienced in the wake of the hurricanes was compounded by the trauma many faced after being forced to evacuate the island. Thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida, many having to leave behind their loved ones and the only home they had ever known.

People outside of Puerto Rico were negatively impacted by the hurricanes as well. Dr. Cyndia Muñiz described the emotional impact of the storms on Puerto Ricans living in Florida, especially for those with family and friends still living on the island. She described how she and her colleagues suffered from anxiety, stress, insomnia, loss of appetite, and a general inability to focus, as they struggled to cope with not hearing from or knowing the fate of their loved ones in Puerto Rico.

Relief Efforts: Successes and Failures

After Hurricane Maria struck, there was an outpouring of support for the Puerto Rican community. Rivera noted that many Central Floridians united to help Puerto Rico, and Orlando became the “center of recovery” after the storms. Muñiz described how UCF’s “culture of care” inspired people to help with relief efforts. “Everyone felt this urgency to do so something,” she recalled. Yet all three panelists observed that despite people’s good intentions, they often failed to address the island’s most critical needs.

McCormick echoed Rivera and Muñiz’s sentiment, noting that everyone “had great intentions” in donating food, water, and generators. But the United Way learned very quickly that these types of donations were not necessarily the best approach. By the time the supplies reached the collection sites, people still had to figure out the logistics of distributing them to those most in need, which took additional time and resources.

After realizing the complications involved with this type of support, the United Way changed their approach to more immediate but lasting forms of relief. They transported individual water filtration systems to the island that people could use (and reuse) in their homes, shipped over solar charging stations to facilitate communication, and sent flexible, water-resistant solar lights to provide much-needed lighting. They also created a hurricane relief fund so that evacuees could receive immediate support. “This is a learning curve for all of us,” McCormick admitted.

UCF’s Role in Post-Hurricane Recovery

Rivera and Muñiz described how UCF did its part to help with the recovery. Muñiz explained that the university decided against collecting supplies since UCF lacked the resources and infrastructure to do so, opting instead to “leave it to the experts.” Instead, UCF responded to calls and shared information about relief efforts taking place in the community. The then provost, Dr. Dale Whittaker, asked Rivera to be the contact person at UCF for post-hurricane recovery. Rivera reflected on the desperation and heartbreak he heard in his conversations with people. He received calls from strangers pleading, “Can you do something for my child?”

Muñiz’s office, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), worked with Neighborhood Relations to help new Puerto Rican students find housing close to campus. ODI also worked with Counseling and Psychological Services to form support groups for students to process the trauma of the storms. The office also hosted a welcome celebration dinner for Puerto Rican students. “We wanted to help them feel not alone and find their place on campus,” said Muñiz.

To assist students impacted by the storms, the UCF Board of Trustees initially approved in-state tuition for students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for one semester, eventually extending the tuition rate through spring 2019, with students now being eligible to receive in-state tuition through 2023. Muñiz pointed out that the tuition discount extension was partially the result of advocacy by the UCF Puerto Rican Student Association.

Lessons Learned

Although the Puerto Rican community is in much better shape now, the panelists emphasized that we need to understand what to do if disaster strikes again. Rivera and Muñiz described some of the lessons UCF learned from the experience. Muñiz stressed that “we cannot be all things to all people,” as we each have our own areas of expertise and skills that we can use to help. Rivera supported her observation, noting that relief efforts of this magnitude should be an “institutional structure, not just individuals answering calls.”

The United Way realized the importance of playing to their strengths as well. McCormick explained that the agency knew they weren’t experts in all areas, so they brought experts to work alongside them. When thousands of Puerto Ricans arrived in the Orlando International Airport after Hurricane Maria, the United Way and 25 partner agencies were there to provide information and resources. The various organizations assisted evacuees with immediate needs, like finding emergency shelter, and long-term needs, such as navigating the tax, transportation, and school systems. “It’s about collaboration and community,” she emphasized.

The panelists all highlighted how networking is a critical component in facilitating relief efforts. Muñiz described how everyone at UCF involved with post-storm recovery, including LaFaSA, the Latino Faculty & Staff Association, had each other’s numbers and communicated constantly to share information, help students, and support each other. Rivera agreed. “The strength of the network drives the success of the recovery process,” he said.

Planning for the Future: What’s Next?

While the island is beginning to recover, Rivera explained that the path to recovery after a large magnitude storm takes years. “The work has just begun,” he stressed. The panelists emphasized that we need to plan for the future, including future Puerto Rican migration to Central Florida. Rivera pointed out that we should plan for migration from other areas as well. “We’re doing things that we can establish for other communities that may come to Central Florida,” he noted, whether due to natural disasters or other reasons. McCormick remarked that we need to look at what the future holds for the next generation of Puerto Ricans. “We need to recognize young people need to be present and informed,” she said.

For those who want to help, the panelists seemed to be in agreement about the best ways to assist Puerto Ricans. Rivera suggests that instead of donating supplies, people should donate money and work with organizations already helping with relief efforts and with established connections in the community. “We need to make sure everyone knows their place and how to respond,” he argued. Another way you can help is by sharing stories and news about Puerto Rico via social media platforms. “This is the way you can get elected officials to pay attention,” he said. Muñiz drove the point home, encouraging people to “do what you can so Puerto Rico is not forgotten.” Looking beyond just Puerto Rico, McCormick asks us to be an advocate when there is a critical need in the community and to “give a voice to a person without one.”

Both UCF and the United Way are continuing to help Puerto Ricans affected by the hurricanes. McCormick expressed that the United Way relies on UCF’s continued support and advocacy to make their post-storm assistance successful. You can help the United Way’s Puerto Rico relief efforts by donating through UCF’s Live United website or directly through the link below.