ORLANDO, Fla. – One year after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, up to 70,000 evacuees from the island have decided to permanently stay and begin a new life in Florida. Among those who decided to stay is Yara Ramos, a mother of four, who News 6 met moments after she stepped off the plane from Puerto Rico and into Orlando Airport's Disaster Relief center.
The relief center opened for evacuees for three months after the storm, helping evacuees find housing and other resources.
"I didn't want to leave," Ramos said last October, crying, after making the decision to leave Puerto Rico. "But I have four kids that need a mom to do good, to work. We need energy, we need light."
One year later, News 6 checked back in with Ramos. This time, she was all smiles. She has a full-time job as a professional development coordinator at an Orlando college and a home.
"It's emotional because I had to leave everything back then and start from scratch," Ramos said. "I've looked back at everything I've done so far and where it's taken me today and I'm very proud of myself."
Ramos said that within a few months of living with her brother in Clermont, she was able to not only get the full-time job, but get a car and an apartment. Her husband, who stayed on the island, moved to Florida in January, and now has a full-time job at Walt Disney World.
"If you aren't going to do it for yourself, no one is going to do it for you," Ramos said. "I just had to do it every day, go on as many job interviews as I had to and touch as many doors as I had to and then, finally, they started opening."
MANY ARE GOING BACK
According to the city of Orlando's Hispanic Office of Local Assistance, or HOLA, 300,000 Puerto Ricans left the island after Hurricane Maria and about 50,000-70,000 have decided to stay.
Ana Cruz, a spokesperson with HOLA, said many people who stayed have struggled to find housing or jobs.
"Not having the knowledge of the English language, they can't find a job that will be able for them to pay an apartment and to get their things," Cruz said.
Cruz said the cost of living, including rent, in Central Florida is higher than in Puerto Rico and there are limited options for low-income housing.
School enrollment numbers also indicate that some evacuees are leaving Central Florida, either going back to the island or moving somewhere else.
According to Osceola County Public Schools, as of May 2018, at the end of the school year, 2,571 students from Puerto Rico were enrolled. On Tuesday, 1,203 of those students were still in school.
Orange County records indicate that as of Dec. 21, Orange County Public Schools had about 2,700 students enrolled from Puerto Rico who were displaced due to last year’s hurricanes. Of those students, 1,450 students enrolled this school year.
In Flagler County, a total of 54 students enrolled after the storm; seven remain. Marion County has 140 students enrolled from Puerto Rico.
The nonpartisan group Mi Familia Vota, which registers Latinos to vote, has registered more than 27,355 voters since April 2 in Central Florida: More than 13,000 in Orange County, 7,900 in Osceola County, 3,700 in Hillsborough County and 2,122 in Seminole County.
About 51 percent of those who are registered have self-identified as being of Puerto Rican descent.