It’s only Ilia Torres’ second day as the new regional director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Orlando, but she’s seen that the need for evacuees from the island in Central Florida is vast.
She’s a transplant herself — from Washington D.C. — where she worked as PRFAA’s legal counsel from August 2017 until last week. She was raised and educated on the island, and later moved to Maryland with her husband.
“The Puerto Rican community has a lot of talent,” she said. “It’s a really promising and hardworking community … I feel that [Orlando] is an extension of the Puerto Rico idiosyncrasy and I’ve felt very at home here.”
But barely settled into the PRFAA’s new, mostly-empty office space on Lake Ellenor Drive, where she’s joined by two other employees, Torres says she’s already begun reaching out to elected officials and community leaders to meet and develop a working plan of what needs to fill in the community.
Torres new assignment also comes months after the regional office — which had been temporarily led by PRFAA executive director Carlos Mercader since January — was tangled in public controversy, after dozens of donated goods were exposed to a rat infestation in February.
Nearly two months later, a group of displaced Puerto Ricans protested in front of the now-closed office demanding for the agency to provide assistance with housing, food, jobs and healthcare.
“We feel that particularly now, in our hour of extreme need, we feel that they haven’t been doing that, and they just closed their doors on us,” said Carmen Torres of Vamos4PR, which has criticized the agency’s assistance in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath as insufficient.
“Don’t tell me you’re just going to refer people, because we could do the same thing,” Carmen Torres said. “Then what is PRFAA for?”
Ilia Torres clarified that the office’s role, though community-oriented, is not to arrange housing for Puerto Rican evacuees, but rather guide them to the resources they need.
“If, for example, they want to apply for housing aid, it isn’t PRFAA who will give them that housing aid. We will identify which agency they should run to, and possibly what steps they should follow,” she said. “It’s going to be a learning process.”
PRFAA’s mission also includes advocating for the interests of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida and Washington D.C., and helping Puerto Ricans communicate with local elected officials.
“We want to reach out to counties so that at least every month we can visit them and mobilize PRFAA’s services and take it to their counties,” Ilia Torres said.
But even working from Washington D.C., Torres said she understood how important PRFAA’s role was in the displaced community.
As the Category 4 storm left most of the island in the dark and without communication, PRFAA — the island government’s regional offices in Washington D.C. and Orlando — became the only fully-functional government agency.
Working 12 to 14 hours a day for two weeks straight, Torres said she fielded calls from people in the mainland and abroad who couldn’t get in touch with loved ones on the island and people with urgent health needs who needed to evacuate, while helping agencies in Puerto Rico communicate with each other.
“I was hired for something and then in that moment the responsibilities had to be redistributed — that’s what the focus became because that was the priority,” she said. “For me it served as experience because if I ever doubted that Puerto Rican people need from us public servants, that’s when I realized that this is meant to be and this is where I’m supposed to be.”
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