Octavio Matos Sr. spent 10 days without taking his daily insulin after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. Patricia Rodriguez had moved to the northern coast of Puerto Rico just months ago, looking for work. Odalys Cordero, and her 10-year old brother, Alexander Deyá, fled the island after the storm, realizing it was no longer safe to stay. All have wound up in New Jersey, part of a continuing — and growing — exodus from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, territories devastated by consecutive, powerful hurricanes that toppled buildings, uprooted trees, and killed at least 48 people.
Much of Puerto Rico remains without power, clean water and easy access to supplies, forcing many to make the difficult decision to abandon the Caribbean island for the mainland.
“The days leading up to us leaving there was a lot of crying going on around my house,’’ recounted Cordero, 19, who is now living with a cousin in Hudson County.
“Both of my parents are police officers and they were working 12 hours a day," she said. "There was not a lot of food and we were eating bread all day and a lot of [canned] sausages, and they could see nothing was getting better, people were dying in the hospital."
"It was just a horrible environment to be in," Cordero said, adding that she doesn't know when she and her brother will be reunited with their parents. "And they decided to send my brother away and me with him”
Help to the island, especially in mountainous isolated places, has taken weeks to arrive. Several hospitals continue to run on generators. And a majority of the island’s public schools remain closed, some still serving as shelters for displaced families, according to news reports.
New Jersey has the third largest Puerto Rican population in the country, trailing Florida and New York, and had seen those citizens increase in recent years due to the island's economic crisis. Before the storms, less than 1 million citizens had jobs on the island, the pension system was collapsing, and debts in the billions are owed to both public and private concerns.
Lorrin Thomas, the chair of the History Department at Rutgers University-Camden, said the number of Puerto Ricans who will move to the Garden State due to the storm will likely spike once people determine they can't stay on the island longer if power, access to running water, food and medicine doesn't improve.
"No one wants to leave their home," said Thomas, author of "Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. " "The Puerto Ricans who are coming here now are leaving in tremendous distress both financial pressure that existed before the hurricane, and also now, the crisis of survival."
Those who have left the island and arrived to New Jersey are staying with relatives or friends. The Garden State is home to about 470,000 residents of Puerto Rican heritage, according to the 2015 U.S. Census estimates.
Some of the recently arrived said they plan to relocate to New Jersey permanently, while others said they will be here temporarily.
“These people have their lives there, they don’t want to come live here,’’ said Arianette Fuentes, of Hackensack, who welcomed her sister, Norma Navarro, and her sister's two grandchildren to her home earlier this month and who she said plan to leave before the end of the month. “They have their own houses.”
The decision to leave is difficult. But still, many continue to book flights and make arrangements to bring elderly parents, sick relatives, and young children to New Jersey.
Jeffrey Casiano, of Passaic, vowed to bring his parents as soon as he could.
This week he boarded a Jet Blue flight to the island and on Nov. 1 he will return with his 77-year old father, who has different health issues. His 80-year old mother though, doesn't want to come to New Jersey, despite his pleas.
"She's holding to hope...with FEMA and some type of assistance,'' he said of his mother. "She's also afraid that if she leaves that they'll get robbed."
Some young children who arrived to New Jersey in recent weeks have already started classes in North Bergen, Paterson, and Passaic city according to district officials there.
Several have come from Puerto Rico, but Passaic and North Bergen schools have also enrolled students from Texas and Florida after Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding in Houston, and Hurricane Irma did the same in Southern Florida.
The New Jersey Department of Education issued a memo earlier this month relating to the enrollment of students displaced by recent hurricanes and reminded school district officials that students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence are considered homeless and are eligible for services. The memo stated that school districts must enroll students immediately even if they do not have school records.
“While the lack of documentation may make the transfer process difficult, the district must make every effort to obtain necessary information from the parent/guardian and student when developing a class schedule,’’ the memo states.
Adamarys Galvin, principal of the Robert Fulton Annex School in North Bergen, said her district enrolled about a dozen students since September in the bilingual/ESL program from Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida. She said several of the children that came from Puerto Rico live with aunts, or other family members, while parents stayed on the island.
On Friday, New Jersey City University in Jersey City announced that they would offer free tuition this semester to students displaced by the hurricanes from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Navarro, who is living with her sister in Hackensack, arrived on Oct. 5 with 10 children in tow, including her two grandsons, Sebastian Rivera, 6, and Andrew Amy, 4. The others were children of friends and neighbors who asked that she bring them to New Jersey for a few weeks until things improved, Fuentes said.
Fuentes said her sister and all the children will return to Puerto Rico.
Navarro said if the situation on the island doesn't improve in coming weeks, then she will ask her son and daughter permission to bring the young boys back and enroll them in school here. But she said she's hopeful that the boys will be soon able to return to their school in Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, since her arrival, Navarro and Fuentes have' been buying and shipping to Puerto Rico batteries, lanterns, extension chords, battery-operated fans, and packs of the nutrition drink, Ensure, as well as other supplies that they can’t easily get on the island. They have also bought generators that they sent via UPS in the hopes that the items will be there when Navarro returns.
“That is the only thing we feel that we can do here to help,’’ said Fuentes, a teacher in Passaic.
Cordero said she has no plans to register her younger brother Alexander Deyá in public schools in New Jersey. She said her parents would reassess the situation later in the month, and said if they remain after Nov. 1, they might go to Maryland and live with relatives there.
“We don’t know when things are going to get better, and when our parents are going to say it’s OK to go back, we have no idea when we are going to finally get to go home,” she said.
Cordero said that scores of trees fell in Guayama, where she lives, and she is not sure when her brother will be able to resume classes.
“I think the classrooms were flooded, and it was a mess,’’ she said.
Cordero said she has also been unable to reach her professors at the Instituto Tecnologico de Puerto Rico where she is a first year student studying business administration.
“I don’t know when classes are going to start up again,’’ she said.
She said her parents keep her updated on progress in Guayama, but she said she’s disappointed with the information she has received.
“They say everything is exactly as we left it…people from the community were cleaning up the streets, and they said no one has come and picked up what was cleared,'' she said. “I know my parents have no power, and they are barely even eating, they are having bread, and I don’t know when they actually had meat for dinner.”
Cordero said she’s hopeful that she will be able to return to the island in mid-November, but she knows much more needs to be done.
“Things are bad, and people are dying, so things are really really bad, and it’s been weeks,’’ she said. “It’s still really bad, and we need all the help that we can get.”