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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Making a new home for the holidays after being displaced by Hurricane Maria

More than 1,600 Puerto Rican households displaced by

More than 1,600 Puerto Rican households displaced by Hurricane Maria are trying to adapt to New York City this Christmas. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / HECTOR RETAMAL

Christmas is different for Charline Marquez this year: It’s not at her grandmother’s house in Juncos, Puerto Rico. That house now has no roof. The clothes and furniture are gone. All thanks to Hurricane Maria, which swept through in the end of September.

Marquez’s family tried to adapt: Her grandmother moved in with Marquez’s mother, waiting for the power to come back on (it hasn’t). Marquez’s 5-year-old daughter had recently started school, but schools had trouble staying open without food or non-generator electricity. The Chinese restaurant where she worked as a cashier didn’t reopen immediately.

Soon Marquez had had it. She, her two kids and her husband headed for New York in October.

Trying to transition

That was how Marquez, 25, came to be waiting in the lobby of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center in El Barrio on Wednesday. The site was jury-rigged in October by Mayor Bill de Blasio into a service center for the year’s hurricane victims from around the country. Outside, in a courtyard opposite Lexington Avenue, you can still see a gritty NYC Emergency Management tent, sandbagged to the floor and heated, which in the early weeks had accommodated the lines of newcomers looking for help.

The tent wasn’t needed and the lobby was less crowded on Wednesday, when Marquez came with her family to see about services. She rocked her 2-year-old son in a baby carriage while her daughter pranced around the lobby happily.

“I like it here,” Marquez says of New York.

But it hasn’t exactly been the smoothest transition. It’s colder than they’re used to. There’s a new school for her daughter — at least it’s open full time, but the 5-year-old is struggling with the English. And for now they’re living in a Queens hotel, paid for by FEMA’s temporary shelter assistance program. That funding runs out on Jan. 13 unless the governor of Puerto Rico requests FEMA to extend it, which concerns Marquez.

Her mother-in-law was born and raised in Brooklyn but there’s no family now with spare room for them in the five boroughs.

The center is supposed to help with some of these problems for the thousands of households who’ve transplanted to NYC from disaster areas this year: 1,601 were from Puerto Rico with 92 from other locations like Florida, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, for the families who completed exit interviews.

Sometimes families showed up straight from the airport, said Mosi London, an NYC Emergency Management staffer. The center has medical supplies and hygiene products, baby formula and MetroCards, and can connect people with English classes and library cards to make adjusting to New York easier.

But housing is much harder. It may be newcomers’ most pressing need, but de Blasio has made clear that there isn’t enough affordable housing to accommodate hurricane victims.

That’s why the center can offer little beyond help navigating the FEMA system that families like Marquez’s are clinging to. The FEMA shelter money can be extended on a case-by-case basis, and caseworkers work with victims to find permanent housing, according to an agency spokesman. Marquez is hoping for either.

Hope for the holidays

On Wednesday at least she was hopeful. She walked away with heavy winter coats for the kids — and two carefully wrapped Christmas presents from strangers, a hint of the season.

An aunt invited the family to a Christmas party, with the promise of real Puerto Rican food. That’s what Marquez says she’ll miss most about the holiday back home, where they would have roasted a whole pig (lechón), plus sides like rice and potato salad.

She’ll miss the feast, and her family still on the island. And it will be hard not to think about home this Christmas, even as they build new traditions for many more holidays in NYC.

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