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Mayor: Chicago welcomes Puerto Ricans fleeing their destroyed homes

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez listens as Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Monday morning, Oct. 2, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday he’s preparing Chicago for a “massive climate change re-settlement” of residents from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico that, one alderman predicted, could double the city’s Puerto Rican population of nearly 103,000.

Just as Houston opened its arms to New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so, too, will Chicago literally become a sanctuary city in every sense of the word for displaced residents of Hurricane Maria.

Already, about 1,600 Puerto Rican residents have re-settled in Chicago, largely through the efforts of their family members in Chicago. Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, predicted another 100,000 Puerto Rican refuges could pour into Chicago.

“You’re witnessing what twelve years ago [after] Hurricane Katrina, I would call the first massive climate change re-settlement. This is another case of a climate change re-settlement. We, as a country and as a city, have to be prepared for that,” Emanuel said at a City Hall news conference.

The mayor said he has already reached out to Cardinal Blase Cupich to coordinate with the city to provide housing, social services and health care to Puerto Rican refugees.

The same kind of coordination with the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago helped 1,000 children from Central America re-settle in Chicago after being “caught on the border,” Emanuel said.

“There’s not gonna be a church. There’s not gonna be a school. There’s not gonna be a health care facility. There’s not gonna be public or private housing that we are not gonna turn-key this city over to make sure that you have a re-settlement effort,” the mayor said.

Emanuel branded the Trump administration’s response to what has become a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico “totally inadequate on a human level . . . that, somehow, these are not citizens” of the U.S.

“I can either take my energy and criticize them for their inadequacy or take my energy and time and focus on getting ourselves organized so, if they have loved ones, they can bring ’em. The kids can get in school. They can get the health care they need. They can get…a roof over their head,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) just returned from a weekend in Puerto Rico with five family members — his wife’s parents, two grandnephews and a grandniece. All five will be staying at the Gutierrez home in Portage Park.

Gutierrez noted that 80 percent of the city of New Orleans was re-settled after Hurricane Katrina. Chicago must be prepared for a similarly “huge” re-settlement.

“Our goal here together is to make Chicago to Puerto Rico what Houston was for New Orleans. Every time somebody thinks of New Orleans, they think . . . of Houston,” Gutierrez said.

“I want people to remember Chicago as a place where people came when they were traumatized — when they were ill, when they didn’t have any hope, that this was a place they could come to and we gave them the kinds of resources they need so they could get back on their feet.”

As Chicago prepares to open its arms to Puerto Rican refugees, 22 members of the Chicago Fire Department will be traveling to Puerto Rico on their own time, armed with medical supplies and communications equipment.

Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said the communications equipment will include radios and a “repeater system” with potential to dramatic improve communications to mountain regions of the island.

“There are certain rules you have to follow for the FCC. We’re gonna go ahead and plant one of these up and see how well it can enhance their communications and, if it can, then we will go ahead and communicate with FEMA that we’ve tried this over there,” he said.

“If that works, I’m pretty sure FEMA can get this type of equipment easy — a lot easier than we can.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner has also reached out to officials in Puerto Rico to offer assistance with recovery efforts. Rauner on Monday sent a letter to Ricardo Rossello, the governor of Puerto Rico. More than 550 Illinois National Guardsmen are on alert and ready to deploy, the governor’s office said.

The Illinois National Guard has already delivered relief material to the U.S. Virgin Islands and some guardsman are already in Puerto Rico to assist with communication efforts.

Rauner’s administration has also reached out to FEMA to offer help.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles