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Florida declares state of emergency to accommodate Puerto Rican refugees

Kristine Frazao, Sinclair Broadcast Group

Seven weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, stories of heartbreak persist.

“Everything is destroyed. We are so sad. So beautiful island -- but not anymore,” said Puerto Rico resident Virginia Gomez, now living in Florida.

Gomez is one of 140,000 people estimated to have left Puerto Rico for mainland United States; many coming by plane and even cruise ship to Florida.

“You have to find food and your own way to solve a problem and where to live there’s no easy way here,” said Hector Gutierrez, who said the bright spot has been his 10-year-old daughter getting enrolled in school here.

But for many, that has presented challenges, like a delay in getting transitional shelter assistance benefits.

“FEMA is telling these people that come here from PR that they have to wait up to 45 days,” said Gregory Blount, founder of Eagle Arts Academy, a school where many Puerto Rican children have enrolled.

Now, Florida’s schools, social service agencies and government programs are overwhelmed. The crisis has prompted Gov. Rick Scott to declare a State of Emergency in Florida as a result of Hurricane Maria. This declaration gives the state the state access to federal funding, which was activated Thursday.

"Puerto Ricans wherever they go -- whether it’s Florida, New York -- we should welcome them with open arms, they are American citizens who have gone through one of the most devastating storms in history," said Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat representing Florida.

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