Tampa opens arms to Puerto Rico evacuees after Hurricane Maria

The Florida city is readying for Puerto Rico evacuees following Hurricane Maria.

ByABC News
October 14, 2017, 3:09 PM

— -- Tampa is preparing to welcome any Puerto Ricans who may choose to make the Florida city their new home in the wake of Hurricane Maria's devastation.

More than 36,000 people have arrived in the Sunshine State from Puerto Rico since Oct. 3, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The state has already set up reception centers in Orlando and Miami, where evacuees from the storm-battered U.S. territory can speak with representatives from various agencies about resettling in the mainland, according to ABC affiliate WFTS in Tampa.

Officials in the Tampa Bay area have teamed up with numerous agencies and non-profits to help connect any Puerto Ricans who come with resources and information.

A foldup table marked "Hurricane Maria Assistance Information" was set up in the baggage claim area at Tampa International Airport this week, according to WFTS. Puerto Rico evacuees stopping at the table can receive white paper bags containing a letter from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, information on recovery centers, a regional transit map and details about benefits from the state's Department of Children and Families, WFTS reported.

Hurricane Maria roared ashore in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. The Category 4 storm killed at least 48 people in the U.S. territory and knocked out most of its power grid.

One Puerto Rico resident who recently arrived in Tampa is Jennifer Martinez.

"I was worried about my baby," Martinez told WFTS in Spanish. "In that heat with no air conditioning, and I suddenly thought 'I've got to get out of here.'"

Martinez said she frantically packed whatever she could in a few suitcases and flew with her young daughter to Tampa, where they are staying with family until she can find her own home and get a job.

"I honestly believe we'll be here for months if not years," she said.

Even now, weeks after the storm, only 14.6 percent of Puerto Rico has power, 58 percent of cell phone customers have service and 64 percent of residents have access to drinking water, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced Saturday. Authorities working to restore electricity hope that 95 percent of the island will have power again by mid-December, he said.

Another newcomer to Tampa is Rosa Merced, who said returning to Puerto Rico isn't an option for her. She will live with her daughter in Tampa until she can permanently resettle in the mainland U.S, she said.

"Everything is destroyed," Merced told WFTS. "We have no water, no electricity. There are people who don't even have food."

"We are so grateful for the help because honestly we need it. We need help," she said.

ABC News' Joshua Hoyos contributed to this report.

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