Arieliss Valencia, a recent transplant from Puerto Rico, sits next to her son Anthony, right a fifth-grader at Riverdale Elementary School, after school supplies were handed out to the student in Orlando in November 2017. The family left Puerto Rico for Central Florida after Hurricane Maria destroyed their home. -JOHN RAOUX/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS(FILE)

By Bianca Padro Ocasio

ORLANDO — Puerto Ricans who moved to Central Florida after Hurricane Maria had more difficulties adjusting than those who settled in South Florida, a study by researchers at the University of Miami found.

A team from the university’s Miller School of Medicine surveyed 213 people in the Orlando and Miami metro areas and on the island, and conducted focus groups in Florida with 36 people, to study how fleeing Puerto Rico after the Sept. 20, 2017, storm affected the mental health of survivors.

Participants in Central Florida reported having a harder time finding jobs, housing and transportation. Generally, they felt less welcome than those who moved to Miami and surrounding areas. By the time the survey was conducted, from February to April 2018, many of those who relocated to South Florida had settled into homes and begun jobs, the study’s authors said.

The disaster killed nearly 3,000 people on the island and drove an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 to Florida. Orange County was their top destination, followed by Miami-Dade and Osceola.

The evacuees’ responses surprised Seth Schwartz, a public health sciences professor and co-author of the study, who said language appeared to be the biggest obstacle for displaced families. South Florida has a dominant Spanish-speaking population, while in the Orlando region, job seekers are more likely to be expected to know English, he said.

“If you come (to South Florida) and you don’t speak English, you can still get around,” Schwartz said. “What we were finding (in Central Florida) was a completely different experience in adjusting.”

Schwartz said the results were unexpected because Central Florida already has a large Puerto Rican population, which he though could lead to an easier adjustment process. But focus group participants in Orlando reported the opposite: They experienced hostility from locals — most notably, from fellow Puerto Ricans.

“What happened in many of these cases was that older Puerto Ricans rejected these folks,” Schwartz said. “That didn’t really happen down (in South Florida). …Yeah, there are some tensions, but if you come here and you speak Spanish, you will probably fit in. That’s not how things went up in Orlando.”

Evacuees in Central Florida also were more likely to live in temporary housing at hotels than those who fled to South Florida, which may have contributed to post-traumatic stress, he said.

“Especially the ones who were placed in the hotels in Kissimmee, they were probably the most traumatized of all, because you take a family of five people, six people and you stick them in a hotel room and you tell them that they have six months to find a place,” he said. “You’re basically setting these families up to fail.”

The Rev. Jose Rodriguez, an Episcopal pastor who helped coordinate focus groups for the study, said that as families have continued to flee the island’s crippled economy and rampant criminality, mental health services are lacking.

“It’s taken me off guard that, over a year after Maria, we’re still dealing with the aftermath,” Rodriguez said. “Our office is strained, our resources are strained.”

Schwartz said he hopes additional research on the Puerto Rican population can improve Florida’s approach to “disaster migrants.”

“Disaster migration is something that we have going on all the time in our state, whether it’s a hurricane, or an earthquake or a civil war or it’s a bad government,” he said. “It’s not a question of ‘if.’ It’s a question of ‘when.’”