Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

 To have been loved once by someone--surely 
There is a permanent good in that 
- John Ashbery

She saw among the stones lining the gutter the wisps of grass green as the most tender human hope.
 - Clarice Lispector, A hora da Estrela

 There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.
- Carlos Fuentes

Late one evening after a recent snow, I was walking my dog through the streets of my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I unexpectedly found myself back again this past June after 25 years away, much of it abroad.

As we arrived in the center of the town, at a place called Penn Square (so-named for William Penn, the British-born founder of the state of Pennsylvania), a memorial dedicated to U.S. soldiers who had died fighting the forces of racism, fascism and totalitarianism greeted us, its taciturn combatants cast in stone and garlanded in white by the new snow.

Into the stone are etched words like Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Antietam, names of the  locations of some of the tremendous battles fought during the U.S. Civil War (the first of which still stands as the largest battle ever fought in North America). It was a war that saw Americans slaughtering one another on American soil, the assassination of a president and, at its end, the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished the infernal institution of slavery.   

It is a historic place, Lancaster. A few blocks away from the square, a plaque marks the spot where, on 27 December 1763, a group of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys broke into the old city jail and killed, scalped and dismembered the 16 remaining members of the Susquehannock tribe (known as Conestoga among English-speakers) who sheltered there, one of countless examples of the inhumanity of the nascent and extant nation to the land's original inhabitants. A few blocks beyond that, the grave of the great abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who represented the region in the U.S. Congress from 1849 to 1868, lies under the snow in a quiet corner of the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery.

More than 150 years on from the Civil War's end, elements of the United States stand with swords drawn within its borders yet again, usually metaphorically but sometimes - as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia and Portland, Oregon - literally.

In many ways, 2017 was a year of loss. In my own country, Americans watched as their nation's standing in the world eroded, and its institutions came under unprecedented threat from within. In Haiti, there was the sudden death of former president René Préval and, for many, a final loss of faith in the political process and a realization that corruption and impunity have possessed the body politic so totally and across such a wide swathe of political actors that divisions between parties and stated ideologies have been rendered nearly irrelevant. In Puerto Rico, residents there lost their homes, their access to electricity and potable water and - in the hundreds - their lives as Hurricane Maria roared ashore. In the process, they also lost any illusions about how they were viewed by many in the larger United States. In Spain, lost was any delusion that the nation’s Francoist past was totally removed from its present day.  In Syria and Yemen, there was a loss of belief that anyone, anywhere cared about what was happening to the defenseless inhabitants of those places.

And for me, personally, there was some loss, too. My grandfather, James Breon, an admirable man in so many ways and the last surviving grandparent, finally succumbed to old age at 92. My beloved cat, Winston, the gentlest creature I've known, passed away at 20. A couple of close friendships frayed in ways that I don't think will ever be repaired. But I was able to see places that mean a lot to me again - Haiti, Paris, Puerto Rico, Havana, Barcelona, - and was even able to make some new friends along the way. 1 was able to publish one book and began work on another.

If 2017 represented the efforts of certain elements of modern-day America to get an illiberal and totalitarian project up and running, 2018 will almost certainly mark an escalation in the assault on the separation of powers, the rule of law and the integrity of our electoral process, all hallmarks of our democracy we must stand ready to defend. But there also seems to have, amid all the loss, been something of an awakening, a realization that, in the purest sense, democracy is not a spectator sport and those who want a voice in it must start that process by showing up in the voting booth, on the ballot and in the streets.

But amid all these struggles - some of which are chronicled in the articles below - I have been reminded that we must make time for - and room for - beauty, tenderness and love. I hope, as this difficult year draws to a close, that all of you find some of all three to greet you in 2018, and that, no matter how bleak things may look, you never give up or give into despair or apathy. 

And I wish you days, as  J.P. Donleavy wrote in The Ginger Man, "on which all things are born, like uncovered stars."

Puerto Rico tries to beat storms natural and man-made for fDi Magazine (19 December 2017)


Michael Deibert interviewed about Haiti by M24, the radio station of Monocle magazine (18 September 2017)
On the Ground: Michael Deibert interview with Sam Schindler for What We Will Abide (26 August 2017)

A Venezuelan retreat for fDi Magazine (17 August 2017)

Was the ‘Guatemalan Spring’ an illusion? for fDi Magazine (11 July 2017)

Before night falls: An American’s letter to France for Michael Deibert's Blog (3 May 2017)

Cuba looks towards renewables for fDi Magazine (7 March 2017)

After momentous year, Cuba faces uncertain 2017 for fDi Magazine (10 January 2017)

'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths

26 December 2017

'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

The modest home that John Torbett used to share with his mother in Ronks in East Lampeter Township overlooks rolling hills and sloping fields, undulating bleached brown in the wan autumnal light.

“Things were running pretty much smooth until my mom died last year," says Torbett, a 54-year-old computer repairmen and desktop support specialist who became disabled in 2010 due to a combination irritable bowel syndrome and vision problems.

“We were alternating the expenses month by month," Torbett says. “But when she died last year, I inherited all the taxes, the oil bill, the electric bill, and I was already in debt."

Soon Torbett, a Delaware County native who had moved to Lancaster to take advantage of the lower cost of living, found himself tripping over the narrow precipice that separates the lower-middle class from the truly needy.

His is a story that has played out time and again throughout the region.

Nearly 60,000 of the county's 536,624 people are living below the poverty line. Their average age is 30.

Outside of Lancaster city, where the rate is 29.2 percent, the highest rates of poverty are in the boroughs of Mountville (21.4 percent), Millersville (21.2 percent) and Columbia (20.4 percent), and the townships of Upper Leacock (15.6 percent), Lancaster (14.4 percent), Conoy (13.8 percent) and Fulton (13.0 percent).

“The truth is, 66 percent of the poverty (in Lancaster County) is outside the city," says Sue Suter, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Lancaster County. “And the face of poverty here is really a single white woman with children." 

Complex situation

Poverty in Lancaster County is a complex condition that does not lend itself to easy caricatures, its endurance prolonged by a variety of ancillary factors.

Though many seem to continue to visualize poverty as an urban — and, to be stark, non-white — problem in the region, the potential for rural residents to slide from paycheck to paycheck into desperation is one that knows no ethnic or geographic boundaries.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the poverty rate in Pennsylvania was 13.3 percent in 2016, down slightly from 13.5 percent in 2015. It was 10.8 percent in Lancaster County in 2016, up slightly from 10.7 percent in 2015.

About 27 percent of the state's population — or roughly 3.4 million people — live in its 48 rural counties.

The federal government defines poverty as income below $12,060 for a single person, $16,240 for a family of two, $20,420 for a family of three, and $24,600 for a family of four.

When things fall apart
One of the women the United Way's Suter referred to is Brenda Gabriel. When she greeted a journalist recently, Gabriel was residing in a transitional living facility — a wooden cabin whose location, off a main road and nestled among trees overlooking a hollow where deer often bed down for the night, could fairly be described as bucolic.

Gabriel is, like John Torbett, an example of how easily one can slide into poverty from a middle-class life.

“Everything kind of fell apart," Gabriel says of her eviction from her home in September, at the end of a marriage in which she became the sole breadwinner after her husband, a salesman at an industrial cleaning products company, become disabled and attempted to collect disability.

A 50-year-old-bus driver with an 11-year-old daughter, Gabriel initially stayed in a motel for two weeks before moving in briefly with her sister and then finding her temporary housing.

At the transitional living site, residents pay electric, but not rent, through the Factory Ministries and Timberline Church. Factory Ministries is a Paradise-based program that acts as a hub for connecting people in need to various resources and services that also assisted John Torbett . 

Seeking support

“This is not something I ever wanted to have to deal with, but I have to take care of my daughter," Gabriel says of the lugubrious process of forms and meetings that getting into the system of government financial aid entails.

The Pennsylvania State Department of Public Welfare has thus far granted her help for child care and medical coverage (through Medicaid), but no cash assistance. She is waiting for a decision on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also commonly referred to as food stamps.

Finding regular accommodation has also not been easy in a county where landlords often requires that tenants earn three times the monthly rent.

“It's been a very difficult time because my daughter is embarrassed," Gabriel says, wiping a tear away as she sits at the kitchen table of her small cabin, a cup of coffee evaporating its warmth in curls of steam in front of her.

“To see her go through this is hard, but it's going to get better and I'm out of the situation I was in,” she adds. “Getting out of that was the best thing I ever did. The Lord has been good to me through all of this." 

Profile of poverty

The demographic outline of poverty in Lancaster County shatters many myths. According to numbers provided by the the Center for Rural Pennsylvania — a bipartisan legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly — 74 percent of those living in poverty in Lancaster County are white, while 58 percent are female.

Some 35 percent have at least a high school diploma and 17 percent have an associate’s degree or higher.

Far from being shirkers, 30 percent of those in poverty have full-time employment, while 23 percent work part time. The makeup of poor housheolds is also an amalgam, with 42 percent in single-person households and 38 percent in households with children.

According to the Census Bureau, 37 percent of rural households had incomes below $35,000. Among Pennsylvania counties, Lancaster hovers in the middle in its portion of residents eligible for medical assistance through Medicaid. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, 17.3 percent of the local population qualifies for Medicaid. And that number has been rising steadily over the last decade.

Many of those on Medicaid also participate in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps. 

Lack of resources

“Poverty is about more than not having money, it's about lack of resources," says Chuck Holt, the president and CEO of The Factory Ministries. The organization is one of several here that attempt to centralize access to various services that the poor may need. Other entities include Pathways out of Poverty and the Elizabethtown Area Hub.

“In rural poverty, homelessness looks different than in the city," says Holt. “We don't have people sleeping in the street, or shelters, we have doubling, tripling up, three families living in one place. Many are single moms with multiple kids. There's a growing Hispanic population. Some single dads, too."

One of those single dads, Josh Roten, a 35-year-old groundskeeper who lives in Peach Bottom and struggles to support himself and his 9-year-old son, points to another factor present in this strata: A strong sense of alienation from politicians and the political process itself.
“Have you ever tried to call a politician?" asks Roten, who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as he smokes a cigarette outside on his porch while his son arrives home from school in the gathering dusk. “They don't return calls, their voicemails are full … . They ignore us. Politicians never listen to us, they don't care what we think until their position depends on us." 

Battling isolation

One chronic and continuing issue of rural poverty, both in Lancaster County and elsewhere, is the lack of connectedness with the larger world.

“If you look at Elizabethtown, eastern Lancaster County and the Quarryville area, those are three areas where you have a concentration of rural poverty, and one of the dynamics shared was transportation is a huge barrier," says Andrea L. Heberlein, the lead director of Collective Impact for the United Way of Lancaster Country.

“Residents had a hard time accessing services because they are located in (Lancaster) city," she says.

Holt echoes Heberlein’s comments.

“If you're down here, there's no public transportation. The bus runs routes 30 and 340, and not all day long," Holt says. “In Pequea Valley, there was only one laundromat, and that burned down three months ago."

In addition, the Factory Ministries in Paradise runs the only food pantry for 80 square miles. 

Impact of opioids

As with so many others facets of Pennsylvania life, the opioid epidemic has also hit the most vulnerable like a freight train. At least 155 people died of drug overdoses here in 2017, up from 117 the year before.
“Our cases continue to increase in their complications," says Jessica L. Laspino, executive director of CASA of Lancaster County. The seven-year-old organization trains and supervises court-appointed volunteer advocates who work with children in the foster care system, of which there are around 500 on any given day.

“In a lot of the (families) we've been working with, the layers seem to have increased,” Laspino says. “It's not just one or two factors working against the family, it's multiple factors.

“The opioid epidemic has a great impact on the youth we work with," Laspino continues. “You have more young people who are drug addicted and more coming into care because addiction has ravaged the family. So has the lack of adorable housing.

“Parents that did the work and addressed issues still cannot provide safe and stable housing for their kids to return home to, so you have parents who have done the work but kids still languishing in foster care," Laspino says. 

Low-paying jobs

Though jobs are being created in the state's rural pockets, their pay remains punishingly low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income in rural Pennsylvania counties was $40,938 in 2015, or $12,030 less than in urban counties.

During the same year, more than 1,000 more people fell into poverty in Lancaster County than during the year before, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“Regardless of what the subject is, when you're talking about rural PA you always have to address the issues of lack of population density and geographic isolation," says Barry L. Denk, the director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“If you don't have the numbers to aggregate, the return on investment, both from public and private, becomes questionable."


And yet, through a patchwork of public and private services and their own pluck, those on the downside of economic advantage in Lancaster County continue to persevere.

John Torbett is looking for part-time work in his field of computer repair and recently adopted a small cat, Paulette, who prowls around his house and keeps watch.

Brenda Gabriel, after months of searching, recently found an apartment she could afford and moved into it with her daughter to great the new year.

Despite her struggles, Gabriel, who now has a financial coach and regularly attends counseling and church at The Factory, is envisioning a happier future story.

“I would like to have a little house for my daughter and I, to have my job — I love my job — and to support her in the things she wants to do."

Friday, December 29, 2017

Books in 2017: A Personal Selection

 Mohammad Mohiedine Anis, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom listening to music on his vinyl player in Aleppo's formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood.(AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos
One of the most important - but in many ways least remembered - Spanish-language poets of the 20th century, whose words translate seamlessly into English in this bilingual collection, Julia de Burgos was the often-anguished and sometimes dizzyingly sensual voice of Puerto Rico who died at 39 in New York City in 1953. In her poetry, recurring images - the sea, the stars - lighten to a degree what can often be the bleak inner life of her writing, and, as a committed political militant and passionate anti-fascist, one of her greatest poems, a tribute to the Rio Grande de Loíza remains, years later, a defiant call to an island and a people battered by catastrophes both natural and man-made:

¡Río Grande de Loíza!... Río grande. Llanto grande.
El más grande de todos nuestros llantos isleños,
si no fuera más grande el que de mi se sale
por los ojos del alma para mi esclavo pueblo.

Rio Grande de Loiza! . . . Great river. Great flood of tears.
The greatest of all our island's tears
save those greater that come from the eyes
up of my soul for my enslaved people.

Holy Legionary Youth: Fascist Activism in Interwar Romania Book by Roland Clark
This all-too-relevant book looks at the foundations and growth of Romania’s indigenous fascist movements, especially Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s Iron Guard, also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael or, simply, as the Legionnaire movement. Facing a crumbling state whose moral equivocations finally eroded its authority, the Romanian fascists blended a wild, faux-mystical antisemitic violence with religious and folk-historical symbolism, including appearing in isolated rural villages dressed as haiduc, outlaws who had fought local oppressors in the 19th century. It is no coincidence that Codreanu’s image appeared on t-shirts worn by some of the far-right protesters who ran amok in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer. In addition to assassinations and street violence, the Legionnaires also defined themselves through art – they sold handmade crosses with the words “by sacrificing our lives we will escape from thieves” inscribed beneath them - and by long marches in between Romanian towns that “alerted onlookers that there was something distinctive about the Legion, showing that legionnaires valued hierarchy, order, discipline and physical fitness.” Though not a time in European history that attracts a great deal of attention today, this interwar period in Romania certainly holds a cautionary tale for our present moment.

Los Zetas Inc: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico by Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera
Though there have been a surfeit of books detailing the garish violence of Mexico’s drug cartels – organizations whose lifeblood depends on both the ravenous appetite for narcotics and current policies of the United States – no book has delved in such nuts-and-bolts detail into the financial hierarchies and dynamics that inform the running of one of these organizations as does Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera’s tome on Los Zetas. Highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the inner working of organized crime and how it integrates itself into the legitimate economy.
Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad
The majesty of one of Iran’s greatest poets – who combines a world and once modern and antique and who writes as frankly and elegantly about female desire as anyone ever has – calls out from the page and evokes a forgotten glory of a national literary tradition that, while perhaps dormant at the moment, waits to be born again.
Family Portrait With Fidel: A Memoir by Carlos Franqui
A memoir of disillusionment and disenchantment with a revolution he once risked his life to support, this memoir by Carlos Franqui, an anti-Batista author and rebel who became editor of the important newspaper Revolución after the dictator’s fall, Franqui’s book shows the betrayal of the Cuban people by the Castro brothers and their allies and the subsuming of hard-fought victories and dreams of progress to totalitarianism. “We carried out all kinds of executions,” Franqui writes at one point. “Real, moral and symbolic.”

Everybody Leaves by Wendy Guerra
A moving elegy to the vanished youth of a Cuban girl’s conflicted and adventurous early life growing up in Cienfuegos and Havana.

Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Classic English ghost stories from one of the masters of the genre, including such gems as “Casting the Runes” and “After Dark in the Playing Fields.” A most enjoyable diversion.
Paradiso by  José Lezama Lima
A complicated, allusive novel of Cuba in the early part of the 20th century, Lezama’s key work remains one of the greatest achievements of Latin American fiction of his era, and his erotic, poetic prose (“They looked each other over with long pauses of insatiation and a carnality of symphonic progression”) couldn’t be further away from the square, macho military culture of today’s “official” Cuba. A sleeping giant, waiting be discovered.
The End of Eddy: A Novel by Édouard Louis
A beautifully rendered and occasionally brutal and disturbing memoir of growing up poor and gay in  northern France, this book captures the simultaneous ache and occasional truces in difficult, dysfunctional families with great clarity and speaks to anyone who ever felt like a misfit who had to break away into the great unknown.

Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea by Shiraz Maher
A vitally important work in decoding the ideology (cosmology might be a better term) of salafi-Jihadism, this book by a noted British academic (and former radical himself) lays out in minute detail the current jihadi interpretation of such concepts as tatarrus (roughly a theological construct relating to human shields but also expanding into targeting civilians) and their roots in various schismatic schools of Islamic thought.

Mephisto by Klaus Manm
The story of an actor’s seduction by the rewards offered by proximity to power in Nazi Germany, the great German author’s 1936 novel has unnerving parables to the situation here in the contemporary United States, and one wonders how many in the orbit of the current U.S. president and his minions have - or will - mentally echo the performer Höfgen thoughts when, as Mephisto, he meets Herman Goering: ”Now I have contaminated myself…Now there is a stain on my hand that I can never wash off…Now I have sold myself…Now I am marked for life.”

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction by Elaine Frantz Parsons
The garishly theatrical nature of the early Ku Klux Klan, where elements of minstrelsy combined with brutal violence, is here chronicled in a book that is often revelatory. Formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in May or June 1866 (and not, as is often claimed, by former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who only attached to himself to the Klan later), the Klan were defined from the beginning by a relentless repetition of “the portrayal of black people as failed citizens and of white attackers as the people” and sought to destroy black associations and kill their white allies, and to actively and deliberately to destroy familial bonds among freepeople. A vital and important part of U.S. history to be understood.

 Impossible Revolution by Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Perhaps the pinnacle of Syrian dissident literature from a man who spent 16 years in the prisons of the tyrant Hafez al-Assad only to be released and watch the dictator’s son, Bashar al-Assad, take over and level the country, Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s book is a cri de cœur that leaves few unscathed.
Writing that, by early 2012 it was “increasingly clear that the unimaginable situation we had discussed privately - the regime would be willing to destroy the country for the sake of staying in power - was its only political agenda, and that it was already being implemented,” Saleh chronicles massacres in Damascus, Homs and elsewhere and illuminates such critical moments as the July 2012 killing of various Syrian security officers (and the subsequent escalation of the use of barrel bombs) as the moment Iran began taking control of the regime’s defenses.
Saleh scathingly critiques “a neo-bourgeois during the years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, a class that owes everything to the regime and has a lot to lose were the revolution to emerge victorious” who in turn serve a government who views its people “with contempt and disdain, in a manner no different from a colonizing power’s view of the colonized; this justifies the use of violence against the “backward” masses and cheapens the value of the lives, so much so that killing them is a matter of no great concern.” Saleh sees his hometown of Raqqa slide under control of the jihadists, noting bitterly that he was “unable to walk around the city where I had spent years of my adolescence, where most of my brothers lived, and where my parents had lived until their deaths, while some religiously-obsessed, enraged Tunisians, Saudis, Egyptians and Europeans roamed freely, unable to engage in anything other than murder.” Detailing the depredations of the regime’s muscle-bound, murderous shock troops, known as shabiha (many with roots in the seaside city of Latakia), Saleh quotes the Syrian-British writer Rana Kabbani describing pro-regime Western writers - especially Robert Fisk - as "shabiha of the pen." Nor does former U.S. President Barack Obama – whose inaction in the wake of Assad’s August 2013 Ghouta must be seen as a turning point of the war escape critique, cited for his “treacherous and dastardly” deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Syria shortly thereafter.
“Those who had appointed themselves the guardians of international law were reassuring a murderer that they might be compelled to punish him for violating international law,” Saleh writes of the toothless response to the attack. “But without affecting his ability to kill people and with no reference to his other crimes…The international community decided mass slaughter of Syrians by regime wasn’t a crime, but the weapon used was.”
The government in Syria, Saleh writes, only ever offered “a cosmetic modernity…without any emancipatory privileges,” whose “real identity” consisted of “ the combination of an obsolete, inhumane political apparatus with a glamorous material façade.”
Today, seven years after Syria’s war began, the international community’s abandonment of the people of Syria has never seemed more complete.

Foreign Correspondent by Robert St. Johh

An extraordinary first hand account of Europe’s slide into fascism, this memoir contains, among other details, chilling eyewitness accounts of the rise (and fall) of Romania’s fascist Iron Guard and of the destruction of Belgrade by the Nazis. A searing and timely reminder of how quickly a society that thought of itself as civilized can descend into madness.

Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada by Zoé Valdés

A novel of a rebel voice living through the hundred daily humiliations of life in an ossifying tyranny, this book sets out to chronicle “the island that in wanting to build a paradise has created a hell,” and in doing so skewers many hoary myths of Cuba.

“There are those who maintain that people throw themselves into the sea over insignificant economic deprivations - can’t get any blue jeans, can’t find any chewing gum - but anyone who says that simply doesn’t know Cuba,” Valdés writes. “Doesn’t know the terror and hunger the Cuban people have known; people who say that are those whose knowledge of the country is limited to the luxury hotels and the government."

Families who came to Lancaster from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria adjust to new way of life

16 December 2017

Families who came to Lancaster from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria adjust to new way of life

By Michael Deibert


(Read original article here)

When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico in September, its winds and lashing rain moved like a murderous scythe across the lush island, toppling power lines, hurling cables across roadways and depositing vehicles upside down in fields. 

Madelyn Velez Santiago's hometown of Mayagüez was spared the worst of the storm's direct impact. However, the collapse of the island's electrical grid wiped out her livelihood. 

"I worked as a dental assistant, but there was no work with no electricity, and we didn't know when it would come back," the 36-year-old mother of two says.

Almost three months after the storm devastated the island, Velez Santiago, who used to travel to Lancaster to visit family as a child, now shares a modest apartment with her children and a childhood friend on the city's west side. 

"The transition from Puerto Rico to here is an intense one, but we've decided to do it because there is nothing in Puerto Rico now," she says. "It's tough, but it's what I have to do." 

Velez Santiago and her children — Luis, 15, and Fabiola, 7 — are among nearly four dozen families who are now adjusting to life in Lancaster, some 1,600 miles way from their former home. 

Blown off their tropical island by the tempest's destructive force, many are here to stay, despite the daunting tasks of finding steady jobs, affordable housing and education for their children. 

"The transition from Puerto Rico to here is an intense one, but we've decided to do it because there is nothing in Puerto Rico now. It's tough, but it's what I have to do."  The challenges of families relocating from Puerto Rico will be an issue city officials will have to face. 

"Thus far, individual families, communities of faith and the school district have been really stepping up in big ways to support families that have been displaced from Puerto Rico," says Lancaster's incoming mayor, Danene Sorace. "But one of the things I'm trying to get a handle on is where families can go whether their needs are housing or counseling services, as for many this has been a traumatic experience. 

"I'd like to have some coordination and to establish a welcome page on our website with some basic information to get families connected depending on what their needs might be," Sorace says. "I do feel we can help people get acclimated and communicate that individuals and families who have been displaced by Maria have a home here."

'Families are struggling' 

As the bare trees of early winter line the street up to Velez Santiago's apartment complex, the mood within is warmed by a glowing Christmas tree and the energy of her children. Sometimes called "the Spanish Rose" — a play on its traditional designation as "The Red Rose City" — Lancaster boasts a large Latino population that makes up roughly 40 percent of the city's nearly 60,000 residents, the vast majority of whom are of Puerto Rican extraction. 

"I like history a lot," says Luis, who attends J.P. McCaskey High School. "But it's a little difficult here because I don't speak much English yet."  "I don't have friends here yet like I did in Puerto Rico, where I had a lot," says Fabiola. 

"I don't have friends here yet like I did in Puerto Rico, where I had a lot." 

While hundreds of thousands of people have fled the island since Maria tore it asunder, tens of thousands had already been leaving amid a grinding economic crisis even before the storm. 

Since Maria, the School District of Lancaster has welcomed 72 students from 47 families, ranging in ages from elementary school to high school. Educating the youngsters, however, is only one of the hurdles that new arrivals face. 

"These families are struggling to find decent housing and jobs," says Damaris Rau, SDL's superintendent. "And I think for many of the adults, they may have been doing great in the middle class in Puerto Rico, but they come here and they can't speak English and they are unable to get the level of employment they should." 

"When we put out a call to the community for backpacks, uniforms, people came forth and gave us tons of things, (but) the county says they have jobs and can't fill them and I think the community needs to stand up and find employment for these people," she says. 

Some already have.

Trying to help 

Tyson Foods has a specifically designed slate of jobs "for people who were affected by Hurricane Maria and had to relocate from Puerto Rico," according to its website. 

Both the Lancaster-Lebanon IU 13 and the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon are offering free English classes to new arrivals. 

"We created a new arrival class for any newcomers in Lancaster County who need to learn English, and we've been able to accommodate the arrivals with that class," says Cheryl Hiester, the council's executive director. "Nearly all the Puerto Ricans taking the class are professionals," Hiester says. "And we are also trying to match them with mentors to try and help them connect with their related careers in Lancaster." 

When the families displaced by the hurricane can return to the island remains an open question. Though the official death toll from the storm is 62, mortality data from the island suggests the true total might be well over 1,000.

After a federal response widely criticized as lethargic and unfocused —which saw many towns fending for themselves for weeks after the hurricane — only around 65 percent of the island's 3.4 million people have regular access to power, according to the Puerto Rican government, and material damage to buildings and roads remains widespread. 

U.S. Reps. Lloyd Smucker and Charlie Dent wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi late last month calling for additional federal disaster funding for schools in Pennsylvania's 15th and 16th congressional districts, both of which have seen an influx of school-aged children from Puerto Rico after the storm. The money would come from $1.2 billion in proposed aid that would go towards an educational recovery fund. 

Amid such emigration, however, many of Puerto Rico's business leaders have criticized the recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — which both Smucker and Dent supported — with the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association warning that new levies on Puerto Rico's businesses contained among its proposals would be "catastrophic" for the island's already-battered economy and lead to more citizens fleeing to the mainland. 

Neither congressman was available to comment on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

'My kids ... need stability' 

Evanisse Maria Rivera, 33, welcomed her two children to her East King Street apartment in Lancaster last month. Danievy and Luis had been living with their father on the island. 

The sandy shores of Salinas, the town on Puerto Rico's southern coast where her family hails from, have been replaced by brown leaves swirling on the sidewalk in a winter wind outside her door. 

"It was very scary," Danievy, a fifth-grader at Wickersham Elementary School, says of the hurricane. "A lot of tress fell down, the noise was very loud. At first the light was there, but it started flickering and the next day it just left completely."

Living in a two-bedroom walk-up with her two other children, Rivera has been told that her two new arrivals may jeopardize her eligibility for rental housing assistance for affordable housing. 

"It's scary sometimes when I go to bed, I have to think about that," says Rivera, a certified peer specialist working at a local Dollar Tree since being laid off from a previous job in her field earlier this year. 

"I'm a single mom, there's no more income than what I get, and my kids coming from Puerto Rico need stability," Rivera says. "(But) we're very resilient people, and there's more opportunity here." 

Her son, soon to be a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School, likes being here, but some things take time to get used to. 

"I feel great being in Lancaster," Luis says. "But the temperature is horrible."