One year later: Hurricane Maria survivors make a new home in Florida
Sasha Justiniano, Jaimie Urbaez, and Yasel Fleitas — among about 65,000 people who fled Puerto Rico and stayed in Central Florida after Hurricane Maria — all found refuge at Wells Fargo.
Nota del editor: También está disponible una versión en español de esta historia.
Unlike many of their neighbors, Sasha Justiniano and her mother, Noemi Ortiz, remained wary after Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico Sept. 6, 2017. They knew others could follow.
But even they weren’t ready for the humanitarian crisis Hurricane Maria brought ashore 14 days later with its 175 mph winds, rain, and storm surge.
Left behind after the storm passed were 2,975 dead, destroyed homes and businesses, downed power lines, and other catastrophic damage — further battering the struggling economy of Puerto Rico.
Ortiz, a community service officer who helped the Puerto Rican government meet residents’ housing, food, and other needs, thought she had done everything to ready herself for the approaching storm.
“We prepared, and went to the store, and got about two weeks’ worth of food and water,” she said. “But once Hurricane Maria hit, we realized it wasn’t going to be enough.”
Major bridges and roadways were gone, she said, cutting them off. “There was no way in or out,” Ortiz said. “We were stuck. Neighbors tried to help each other clear the roads, but we didn’t have any heavy equipment.”
Panicked residents fought for water and waited hours for dwindling supplies of gasoline. The tire shop where Justiniano worked took days to reach, and when she finally got there, she learned that the business couldn’t operate until electricity was restored.
Justiniano and Ortiz remain shaken to this day when they talk about Hurricane Maria’s fury.
“Most people weren’t doing anything to prepare, because they said Maria wasn’t coming either, just like Irma,” Justiniano said. “When the storm hit, we could hear people screaming and running outside, and houses exploding, and trees falling, and leaves and debris hitting the house. Our house was made of concrete, and we were safer, but we had left the windows open since we thought our house may explode or implode.”
“We could feel the wind in our ears,” Ortiz said. “It sounded like a monster outside.”
Their ticket out
A birthday present Ortiz gave Justiniano before the storm hit — a Caribbean cruise and plane tickets for both of them to the port near Orlando — provided their escape to Florida in November 2017. They left with a single suitcase each, and except for one trip back for items left behind, they have remained in Florida ever since.
While living with Ortiz’s sister in Clermont, Justiniano applied for a bilingual teller position at a local Wells Fargo bank branch.
“When I asked her to tell me a little about herself and her work experience at the tire shop in Puerto Rico, her lower lip started to twinge a bit, and then she told me her story,” Ashley Hebert, the Wells Fargo branch service manager who interviewed her, said. “A week before that I had been in Houston, Texas, helping my own dad recover after his house and truck were flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Her story went straight to my heart.”
“These are challenges we need to overcome, and that we will overcome.” — Noemi Ortiz, Hurricane Maria Evacuee
Justiniano joined Hebert’s team on March 19, 2018, and not long after, she and Ortiz moved into their own apartment.
“It was a big adjustment for us both moving here, emotionally and financially, but we have accomplished a lot,” said Ortiz, who takes English courses online at night. By day, she works at a local hospital sterilizing medical equipment. “These are challenges we need to overcome, and that we will overcome.
“When we first moved here, Sasha would cry every single day,” Ortiz said. “The biggest change has been the job at Wells Fargo because it has opened opportunities for her and been a huge shift in her life, and helped change her perspective.
“As a mom, I am proud of what she’s been able to accomplish, and the way she feels for and cares about others. She’s a fighter and hasn’t had an easy life. She never sits down and waits for things to happen to her. She makes things happen.”
‘I’ll forever be grateful and thankful to Wells Fargo’
Jaimie Urbaez and Yasel Fleitas also survived Hurricane Maria’s destruction in Puerto Rico, and they too found their way to Wells Fargo in the storm’s aftermath.
Before becoming a teller at a Wells Fargo branch in Orlando, Florida, in February 2018, Urbaez worked as service manager for a bank near San Juan. With two small children — a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son — Urbaez said worsening conditions in Puerto Rico prompted her and her mother, Zulma, to flee to Orlando, where her brother lived.
“I felt super comfortable joining Wells Fargo because it was an industry I already knew,” Urbaez said. “I felt really good, and Wells Fargo made it super easy for me to adapt.
“After Maria, conditions were horrible, and everything was difficult,” she said. “I didn’t have a generator, so it was hard for me to have my children in a place without air conditioning, electricity, and fresh food, and to go to work and leave them with my mom in those conditions. I couldn’t leave my kids like that.”
Fleitas also had prior banking experience. He had already worked for Wells Fargo for eight years in a variety of roles at bank branches in Miami when he and his partner headed to Puerto Rico in January 2018 to run La Social — a hair salon, bistro, and boutique in San Juan.
The business emerged from Irma unscathed, but not Maria. Floodwaters swamped the neighborhood, and so many customers left as they struggled to recover from the storm themselves that Fleitas couldn’t keep it open.
“It was sad to see such a beautiful island destroyed,” said Fleitas. “Nothing was green, but gray. The ocean was no longer blue, but black. I knew it was going to be hard to recover. Friends and customers that I met along the way started coming to the mainland.
“Wells Fargo made it super easy to me to adapt.” — Jaimie Urbaez, Teller
“I took ownership of my destiny and made the decision to once again leave all dreams and ambitions behind,” he said. “I packed what I could and left on the first flight to Miami. Not knowing where and how to start was the most horrifying feeling. After all I once had, the question on my mind was: Will I be successful again?”
He soon got his answer when his prior Wells Fargo boss called about a job while he was living with his parents in Miami. He rejoined the company March 15, 2018. “I’ll forever be grateful and thankful to Wells Fargo for the opportunity to re-establish myself and my reputation with so much love and support. It helped me get back on my feet and recuperate from having left behind a dream crashed by nature.”
Storm accelerates migration
According to The City University of New York’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Justiniano, Urbaez, and Fleitas are among more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans estimated to have left the island after Hurricane Maria.
A population shift has been underway for more than a decade, the center said — 525,769 Puerto Ricans have moved to the continental U.S. from 2006 to 2016 — but the storm accelerated this shift.
The center, which is leading efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico, estimates another 470,000 residents could leave between 2017 and 2019 as a result of Hurricane Maria. While 49 of 50 states have received residents after the storm, Florida has received the most (nearly 42 percent of all in-migration from Puerto Rico). Within Florida, the Orlando area has attracted the most transplants.
Small business assistance
Gaby Ortigoni, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, said family connections, welcoming communities, multiple direct flights from Orlando International Airport, and a fast-growing Hispanic population led thousands of Puerto Ricans — including business owners — to settle in Central Florida after Hurricane Maria.
Ortigoni said the chamber, Prospera — an economic development nonprofit that helps Hispanic entrepreneurs open or expand businesses — and companies like Wells Fargo are helping small business owners from Puerto Rico both expand into Florida while strengthening their operations on the island.
From October 2017 to June 2018, Prospera has assisted at least 500 Puerto Rican business owners who have expressed an interest in expanding to Central Florida, Ortigoni said.
Puerto Ricans have comprised more than half of Prospera’s business development seminars attendees, added Ortigoni, and 40 percent of Prospera’s consulting clients in the region have been Puerto Ricans — up 30 percent from the same period in 2017.
“The estimated number of people who have moved from Puerto Rico to stay in Central Florida fluctuates between 50,000 to more than 300,000,” said Ortigoni. “However, based on recent reports provided by the school systems and other government agencies, the actual number could be closer to 65,000 — why we’re organizing a conference to more closely examine the data and guide our response.”
In addition to supporting small-business development, Wells Fargo worked with the Red Cross to drop-ship care packages to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and contributed $575,000 for disaster relief in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Asia following disasters. Wells Fargo Consumer Banking team members in El Paso, Texas, added to those efforts by sending new toys, board games, puzzles, and art supplies to the Puerto Rico Soccer League for children during the holidays.
“As we have had folks migrate from Puerto Rico and seek to re-establish themselves here, we’ve worked with organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Prospera to aid these thousands of customers in that transition,” said Derek Jones, Central Florida region bank president for Wells Fargo. “We know one of the key ways to do that is to establish yourself financially, and having Sasha and others like her has helped us be there for our customers.”
Jones said Justiniano’s story continues to inspire him, just as it has inspired her team members and customers.
“We really believe in hiring a diverse population to mirror our community, and also believe strongly in developing our team members so they can provide the best experience for our customers,” Jones said. “Sasha’s story is a perfect example of how both played out here in Central Florida.”
‘She inspires us’
Hebert still marvels at how Justiniano moved from a majority Spanish-speaking territory to one where English is the predominant language, and how she taught herself English.
“We call Sasha our little warrior,” Hebert said. “She inspires us every day because of what we all know she’s been through, even though you’d never guess it from her attitude. She’s always smiling. Still, to this day she says, ‘Ashley, thank you for this opportunity. Thank you for bringing me aboard. Thank you for giving me a chance to start over.’ She is so humble and grateful.
“If you work hard and stay positive, you can get through anything.” — Sasha Justiniano, Teller
“Her strength has made all of us really strong as a team. We’ve always been a really strong team, but she has brought our close-knit family together even more and made us that much stronger. She is amazing, and left us all wanting to be even better for our customers and each other.”
Justiniano feels the same way about Hebert and her team members.
“I want to do better because I want my team to see the progress I’m making, and what their notes — ‘You are doing good, Sasha, I am proud of you!’ — and other recognition and help putting financial concepts into the best English for my English-speaking customers have meant to me,” Justiniano said.
“I came to work at Wells Fargo because I needed a job, and my mom and I weren’t working for a couple of months. I was on the internet, and saw Wells Fargo was looking for a bilingual teller, and said to myself, ‘I’ll apply and maybe I will get the chance.
“Thank God Wells Fargo gave me the opportunity,” she said. “Like my mom always says, I know that ‘If you work hard and stay positive, you can get through anything.’”