More than a month after Hurricane Irma devastated Puerto Rico, half of the island still does not have power, forcing many onto the mainland.
Families relocating to Nebraska are finding the process isn’t easy.
“It’s sad. Everything in Puerto Rico is destroyed. It will be years before it’s even half restored,” said Shiara Rivera, a Spanish teacher on the island who currently finds herself jobless in Omaha.
Rivera and her two teen daughters arrived in Omaha two days ago after their two-story home in Puerto Rico was ruined in September.
“I came here because I have family here. I had no options to stay. It’s about getting the basics and survival for my kids and I,” said Rivera. “And now I need a job. I need to work. And my girls need to go to school – I need to get them their lives back.”
Rivera says being on the island without power made everyday tasks nearly impossible, like going to the ATM, grocery shopping or even taking a shower.
“It took me a day to do one thing – get gas, one day. Get food, one day. Take a shower, one day. Basic things were basically impossible,” said Rivera.
Rivera claims her face even had severe face burns from standing outside a bank in line for hours, waiting to get some cash out of her account.
“We’re happy to have escaped that,” adds Rivera. “We miss home, but this is for the best.”
However, Rivera’s willingness to work isn’t what’s stopping her from getting a job. It’s the fact that she, like many other Puerto Rican evacuees can’t get a job without a Nebraska state I.D., despite being U.S. citizens.
To get a state I.D., you need a utility bill in your name or some proof of address, but Puerto Rican transplants don’t have that right now, and because many of them are staying with family, they’re not considered homeless and don’t qualify for HUD (Housing and Urban Development) funding. They’re also not considered refugees or immigrants, leaving them without an easy way to get issued a driver’s license or state I.D.
To help facilitate hurricane Maria victims’ transition to Nebraska, a group of local Puerto Ricans started a nonprofit called Heartland Untied for Puerto Rico to help collect donations and offer resources for hurricane Maria victims who evacuated to Nebraska.
“We had a family that came here a week ago that was blessed with having a vehicle here for them – they went to insure it and they are being charged three times as much because it’s considered a foreign license, which doesn’t make sense either because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. It’s no different than Washington D.C.,” says Victoria Leuthold, program chair for the nonprofit.
Over two dozen families have reached out to the nonprofit since they’ve arrived in Omaha within the past month and the group is expecting more.
Leuthold says in order for evacuees to get I.Ds quickly, there needs to be change at the state level.
The organization has met with local legislators, like Senator Tony Vargas, Congressman Don Bacon and Mayor Jean Stothert to encourage them to champion for hurricane Maria victims.
Currently, there are more than 2,000 Puerto Ricans living in Omaha.