Osceola County 'ground zero' for Puerto Rico evacuees

Local leaders struggle to find resources for growing community


KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The Puerto Rican population in Kissimmee continues to grow as Hurricane Maria evacuees move to the Central Florida area.  

Area leaders said Kissimmee and Osceola County are ground zero for evacuees.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson along with Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Darren Soto sat and listened to community leaders in Kissimmee talk about what their concerns and needs were in order to move forward with helping evacuees. 

"This is a communication problem. We have got to get out to people that have come here are fellow American citizens from the island to let them know what is available," Nelson said.

Osceola County School Superintendent Dr. Debra Pace was among the group. 

She addressed the growing number of students in the school system. 

Within the past few weeks, more than 1,700 students have enrolled and that number is expected to grow. 

The students' mental health has also drawn concern. 

Pace told Nelson mental health referrals doubled last week.

Two local church leaders who have been helping evacuees with food, jobs and other necessities since Hurricane Maria also spoke at the event.

"The needs that these families have are greater than a church can do. That we have been working from the very beginning and we're committed to the long term but some of these solutions are much bigger," said Jose Nieves, associate pastor with First Kissimmee United Methodist Church. 

Soto said he and Nelson have been working to get answers from FEMA in regard to housing. 

"We need to have FEMA approve the vouchers for leases and look into this idea from our local officials about some of these hotels that are not open right now," Soto said. 

A FEMA representative in Puerto Rico told News 6 they're working to answer questions about the future of housing in Central Florida as well as how long the Transitional Shelter Program will last. 

Until then, Nelson said he and area leaders will work to get answers and results of their own. 

"When it comes to FEMA, I will beat their door down," Nelson said. "Just wrote to the Appropriations Committee and said it up in Washington, said the president's proposal for $1.2 billion -- that's just scratching the surface. We are going to have to have a lot more funds and that is why we not only have had two emergency funding bills, all of the hurricanes, we have another one coming and now we're going to have to have another one. A fourth one before Christmas."