Puerto Rico: Osceola County officials, public discuss effects of population influx

By: WFTV Web Staff

Updated:

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Osceola County officials met with federal and state officials, and the general public Tuesday afternoon to discuss the expected influx of residents to the region from the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico.

Adelia Torres moved to Kissimmee to flee the devastation left in Hurricane Maria's wake. She's one of hundreds who fled to Osceola County after the storm.

Read: Osceola County leaders to discuss more options to help Puerto Ricans relocate

© 2017 Cox Media Group.
© 2017 Cox Media Group.

Read: Osceola County opens assistance center for victims of Hurricane Maria

Torres told Channel 9's Johny Fernandez in Spanish that she has no intentions of permanently returning to the island.

Officials met at 5:30 p.m. at the Kissimmee Civic Center to discuss how the possible exodus from the island could affect housing, education and employment in the county.

Dozens of people turned up at the meeting to discuss how the county hopes to make the situation work.

"You will see a large number of people living in one household and it will not be for three months (or) six months, it will definitely be for a couple of years," Osceola County resident Lizette Irizany said. "We have to push for housing vouchers."

More students on the way

Osceola County has already enrolled nearly 150 students from the islands.

School board member Kelvin Soto said the district has a plan, but its population may grow by 3,500 students this year, which is more than double the usual rate.

As people from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands come to Central Florida for help, many parents, including Irizarry, worry about what it will mean for local schools.

The single mother is trying to recover from Hurricane Irma at home and she welcomes those fleeing Puerto Rico and other islands.

“I'm actually praying for our schools that they'll be able to do what they have to do,” Irizarry said.  

Read: Airbnb looks into building permanent apartments in Osceola County

Soto said the district expects 2,000 students just from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands during the next year.

"We actually believe we'll hit that number. We normally expect 1,500 additional students every year," Soto said.  

“We hope, along with this influx, we see professionals that will join our school district,” Soto said. “We need bus drivers. We need support staff. We need special education professionals.”

Soto said there will be challenges, but the district is prepared to help educate, support and if need be, clothe the incoming students.

He said the district will handle larger class sizes and bring in portables if needed.

The board has already contacted the state about additional funding.

"There hasn't been anything concrete that I know of yet, but we'll be able to pick up funding if that works out for us," Soto said.

Hispanics made up about 43 percent of Osceola County's population in 2010, but in 2016, that number jumped to more than 52 percent of the population.

The district has hired more Spanish speaking teachers and staff which, will help with the influx of students from the islands.

More ways to get help

A Hurricane Maria Reception Center has been established to serve as a one-stop-shop for new residents to learn how to apply for Medicare, food assistance and identification cards.

The center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The county has also established an assistance hotline, which may be reached by calling 407-742-8598.

Read: Osceola, Orange school districts concerned about cost of influx from Puerto Rico

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