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Can Chicago handle an influx of hurricane-weary Puerto Ricans?

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.

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

There isn’t much left in Puerto Rico for Jose Castro.

His home was destroyed like countless others on the island, and things he’d worked so hard for — a car, a bedroom set, even his dog — remain behind.

“I’ve lost everything,” Castro said. “I have no place to go, nothing to do. I’ve never experienced this before. My home — the whole island — is completely destroyed.”

Like an estimated 1,000 or more from the hurricane-ravaged island, Castro has found refuge in Chicago. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made clear the city could open its doors to tens of thousands more.

Castro has been staying with a friend since Oct. 12, and even though city officials are trying to help him find housing, he still is saddened when he thinks of his home — and what he says is the federal government’s lackluster response to the humanitarian crisis he witnessed firsthand.

Emanuel, as well as other elected officials, are collaborating to welcome evacuees in a style similar to Houston after Hurricane Katrina. Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, predicted the influx could roughly double the city’s Puerto Rican population of 103,000. Others aren’t so sure the number will get that high.

Regardless, there are questions about whether Chicago has the infrastructure and services available to support and properly accommodate a major influx of Puerto Ricans.

“If we see a higher number of people come from the island, it could be a real challenge to find housing,” said Josh Ellis, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonpartisan group that develops regional planning, environmental and economic growth strategies.

The number of evacuees in the city isn’t completely clear. Alicia Tate-Nadeau, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said at least 1,600 have passed through O’Hare Airport — a number that comes from the Department of Aviation, which keeps track of humanitarian flights from disaster zones.

The influx of Puerto Ricans has been slow, and the city still has enough resources to help others, Tate-Nadeau said. Plans started before Hurricane Maria hit, with potential housing choices including Airbnb rentals.

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“Right now, we’re seeing a small-scale response because we’re seeing small numbers of people,” she said. “If that number increases, the plan is built so that 60 [social-service and other] agencies could step in and help.”

Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st) said he took an inventory of available housing in his West Side ward and talked to developers about offering 116 units, ranging from studios to two-bedrooms.

He and Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) both talked about working with the Chicago Housing Authority to make sure Section 8 voucher holders could transfer rent subsidies they’d had in Puerto Rico to Chicago.

A welcome center at the Humboldt Park field house, 1400 N. Sacramento Ave., will open in Maldonado’s ward, the alderman says on his web site. It will connect evacuees to clothing, food and housing as well as other resources they may need after landing in the city.

Point people have been designated for evacuees within Chicago social-service agencies, too. If the number of evacuees spikes, plans call for a multiagency resource center to help meet their needs, said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, co-chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda.

“Even though many are staying with family, that’s not sustainable over time. We need federal help,” Pacione-Zayas said. “The city needs to flex its political muscle to put pressure on the federal government.”

Pacione-Zayas and politicians like U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., have flexed their own muscle in directing aid to Puerto Rico, as President Donald Trump has suggested that the financially troubled island — whose 3.4 million residents are American citizens — would soon have to bear the brunt of rebuilding.

Asked if the city’s plan will be helpful, Omar Torres-Kortright, executive director of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, said he believes the city is doing a good job so far.

“I think how the city handles this situation will become more evident as the number of people increases,” said Torres, who is hosting his parents. “We’re going to be able to measure the city’s response later when Puerto Ricans who may not have family [in Chicago] come and try to continue their lives.”

The city’s plan also includes coordination with Chicago Public Schools to make sure children can be enrolled while they’re here — a move that shouldn’t overcrowd schools if the numbers remain low, officials said.

Jobs are another point of concern. Maldonado said he and others in the 26th Ward were reaching out to labor unions in hopes of placing trade workers. An association of those labor unions — the Chicago Federation of Labor — is part of an investor group that recently purchased the Chicago Sun-Times.

Castro, a retired water infrastructure worker, would like that.

“Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and we need help,” Castro said. “I’m proud of those who are trying to do everything they can to help us, but I don’t think this will be fixed quickly. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life — whatever is left of it — in Chicago.”