The effect of Hurricane Maria on one Puerto Rican community five years ago. Kris Grogan

Every September, Puerto Ricans keep a wary eye on the National Hurricane Center forecast full of anxiety and tension. The development of tropical systems sparks feelings of trauma and suspense, embodying the physical and psychological effects of disaster.

Today marks the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting landfall in Puerto Rico. Five years to the day, Puerto Ricans are yet again recovering from climate change-induced disaster. Hurricane Fiona swept through Puerto Rico this past weekend, contributing to widespread power outages and historic flooding, leaving over 750K without access to potable water.

Jayson Velazquez and Bruni Pizzaro.

As community-based organizations (CBOs) in Puerto Rico are actively responding to Hurricane Fiona’s aftermath, CBOs in the Puerto Rican Diaspora are preparing for potential resettlement while also supporting ongoing recovery efforts in the archipelago. As Carmen Yulín Cruz, former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico said, “Take the aid directly to mayors, religious organizations, community organizations, and non-governmental organizations. If these things are not done, we would have not learned anything from Maria.”

Climate-change induced disasters in the Caribbean continue to persist. Hurricane season serves as a source of anxiety for many Latinx-led social service organizations, including New Haven’s Junta for Progressive Action (Junta), the oldest, Latinx CBO in the Greater Haven area. In the wake of disasters like Maria, culturally responsive social service organizations like Junta play an essential role connecting Puerto Ricans arriving stateside with essential services such as housing, child care, and health care. Five years after Maria, however, many of these organizations face uncertain and inadequate funding, imperiling their capacity to respond to future climate-related disasters.

A high-end category four storm when it made landfall, Hurricane Maria devastated the Puerto Rican archipelago with sustained winds that reached 155 mph. Puerto Rico was already in recovery mode following Hurricane Irma, which had caused wide-scale power outages just two weeks earlier. Together, Hurricane Maria and Irma exposed existing infrastructural and social challenges in Puerto Rico. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to uproot their lives and move stateside.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans seeking refuge from Hurricane Maria landed in Connecticut, mainly in Hartford, New Haven, and Fairfield Counties. By 2019, 8.5% of Connecticut’s entire population was Puerto Rican. 

In New Haven, Junta for Progressive Action -–a longstanding Latinx-led social service and advocacy agency-–played a critical role in disaster resettlement and response. Junta served as a culturally responsive resource hub, fielding referrals from organizations and individuals within Connecticut, neighboring states, and Puerto Rico.

Many Puerto Ricans arriving in New Haven had family members in the area, but those relatives were not always able to meet the significant need for housing, medical aid, and child and eldercare. Junta’s deep roots and trusted relationships in New Haven’s Latinx community served as the foundation for their effective response efforts. As a result, Junta worked with other local nonprofit leaders and the City of New Haven to deliver essential services such as food access, child care, housing assistance, healthcare, communications, and more. 

In the five years since Hurricane Maria, Junta has emerged as a leader on the frontlines of disaster resettlement and relief efforts, including welcoming new arrivals in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Puerto Rico in late 2019 and early 2020. Today, Junta’s programming includes COVID vaccine pop-up clinics, diaper distribution, rent and utility assistance, eviction prevention, cultural events, and much more. 

As climate change continues to exacerbate the frequency and strength of extreme weather events, culturally responsive social service organizations like Junta will continue to be at the forefront of disaster response efforts. But many of these organizations face significant financial and capacity barriers, inhibiting their ability to prepare for the next storm or earthquake

Latinx-led and serving social service organizations receive less than 5% of all philanthropic donations and grants in the United States. Junta is one of many organizations that are called upon to do the work while being under-resourced. As we expect to face more climate change-induced disasters in the future, social service organizations require year-round financial resources, equitable community partnerships, and influence in key decision-making processes.

The future of disaster response and resettlement is with the social service organizations that have meaningful and trusted relationships with the community. In New Haven, community members trust Junta for Progressive Action because of the organization’s history of showing up, proximity to its clients, and helpful services. If social service organizations are to continue to effectively lead disaster and crisis response, disaster and emergency response funding needs to be allocated adequately and equitably. 

As we enter the peak of the 2022 hurricane season, it’s time for those with power to step up and consistently support the social service organizations doing the work, not just in the wake of disaster.

This story was updated 9/20/22 to include the impact of Hurricane Fiona.

Bruni Pizarro is Executive Director of the Junta for Progressive Action. Jayson Velazquez is an Environmental Science master’s degree candidate in the Yale School of the Environment.