An unknown number of Puerto Rican families may be heading toward the mainland U.S. in the coming weeks in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. They'll be in need of jobs, housing and health care, and western Massachusetts is getting ready.
At Enlace de Familia in Holyoke, a conference room was packed with about 60 people on Thursday. It included representatives from a number of city departments and social service groups.
Almost every sector was represented at some level: labor, public schools, health care, transportation and housing.
Holyoke is home to a large Puerto Rican population with ties to residents of the island, which was devastated after two hurricanes hit. So the city and the region are getting ready for an influx of residents.
Mayor Alex Morse said the city wants to make sure families are welcomed.
"We're working with housing agencies," he said. "We're working directly with school districts to make sure we're getting students enrolled in the public schools."
Morse also addressed mental health needs.
"There's a trauma around what happened, and we want to make sure they're connected to [services] as well," he said.
The tone of the meeting was urgent, but no one had any idea how many Puerto Ricans may come to Holyoke, or when. Residents and officials believe "many" people will come in the next few weeks and months, once it's possible to get to the airport, or get a ticket on limited flights.
Several people raised question about cutting the usual red tape, at least initially, in order to provide services like cash assistance and housing.
The two-hour meeting was a start, most attendees said upon leaving. The scenario is unique: how to coordinate the needs of an unknown number of people who will come to the continental U.S. a few at a time, without more than a small bag of their belongings, and who may not speak English well enough to know how to get the help they need.