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Four Years Later, Holyoke Residents Gather To Remember Hurricane Maria's Impact

Four years ago, Hurricane Maria led to the deaths of 3,000 people in Puerto Rico. In Holyoke, where about half the residents identify as Puerto Rican, a welcome mat was put out.

On Monday night, a small group gathered downtown to mark the somber day.Memories from September 20, 2017, remain vivid for those who spoke, including Carmen Yulin Cruz, the former mayor of San Juan, currently a fellow at Mount Holyoke College in neighboring South Hadley.

In the months after Hurricane Maria, Cruz pleaded for help from the Trump administration.

The city of Holyoke was a lifeline, she said. While Puerto Ricans are divided by where they live, she said, they never forget where they're from.

“The Boricuas from here and the Boricuas from [Puerto Rico], those from the diaspora — there is no such division,” Cruz said. “For you see, in our darkest hour, it was you who brought us light and hope.”

In the days after Hurricane Maria, Holyoke residents and local leaders sent food and clothing to the island, and for months after helped provide resources for Puerto Ricans arriving in western Massachusetts.

Between October 2017 and February 2018, more than 1,800 people turned to Holyoke's Enlace de Familias, among the federally designated "welcome centers." People were looking for clothing, jobs, how to transfer their Social Security benefits, and housing.

“What Springfield was able to [do] had never been seen before. What Holyoke was able to do had never happened before, even in the worst of days,” said Betty Medina Lichtenstein, executive director of Enlace, crediting several residents in the audience and lawmakers from around the region.

“We [in Holyoke] had just gone through a horrific experience on January 1st [2017] when some buildings burned down. But that was our test,” Medina Lichtenstein said. “That was the beginning to teach us how to be able to mobilize a community.”

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