BRIDGEPORT — Juan Irizarry planned to move to the U.S. mainland after collecting a degree in chemical engineering. Eventually.
Hurricane Maria sped up the process.
Once he knew his parents in the coastal town of Arecibo could get by without him, Irizarry, 22, made his move. He came to Bridgeport to live with an uncle two weeks ago, and almost immediately became connected with the city’s new Puerto Rico Relief Center — as a volunteer.
“As much as I am able, I want to help,” said Irizarry, whose command of English has been put to good use.
He was among those who on Wednesday christened the new center, on the ground floor of 2 Lafayette Square, where it shares office space with the American Job Center.
Designed to be a one-stop resource for families transitioning from Puerto Rico to Bridgeport, the center will offer job assistance as well as referrals for housing, health care, transportation, food and clothing.
Scott Wilderman, chief executive officer of Career Resources, said his agency and others felt compelled to do something from the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.
Dozens of Bridgeport-area nonprofit agencies, community leaders, officials and educators have banded together to help welcome the hurricane refugees, whether their stay is short-term or permanent.
“Some say they are here just until they recover.” Wilderman said. “Some lost everything and their next home is here.”
As of Tuesday, about 70 percent of the island of 3.4 million people were still reported to be without power.
“We will work with families, many with real problems,” said Rosa Correa, coordinator of the relief center, promising it to be a long-term commitment.
Bridgeport has one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the state. And the center has started working with 30 families who because of the hurricane have come to live with local relatives.
“This is your community,” Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Make this a welcoming place to live.”
Erica Rosario, 29, who helped cut the ribbon, arrived from Puerto Rico two weeks ago with her mom. Since then she has been hospitalized twice with stomach problems.
“Our house was very broke,” Rosario said. Still, the decision to leave was hard.
Idalis Colon came last week with two children — a toddler and an older child who has enrolled at Cesar Batalla school — and is living with her father. The home she left in Puerto Rico still has no power or water.
Colon’s eighth-grader is one of 53 children who have enrolled in the school district from Puerto Rico over the past month.
“It’s good,” she said of the welcome she has received.
Recent fundraisers in the city and surrounding area have raised more than $70,000, said Correa. There also have been collections of supplies. At noon on Wednesday, a truck filled with donations collected at Housatonic Community College was to arrive at the center.
Scott Appleby, director of emergency management for the city, said the state has put in a request for a Federal Emergency Management Agency specialist to work on behalf of Bridgeport and Hartford to provide disaster relief that arriving victims need.
“We want to make sure no one falls through cracks,” Appleby said.
Irizarry said the power came back four days ago at his parent’s home in Arecibo, a coastal community a half hour from San Juan.
Still, he intends to stay in Bridgeport.
“I want to be in a position to help my family back in Puerto Rico,” Irizarry said, adding he and others like him have skills and a work ethic that can be put to good use in cities like Bridgeport.
“But drive and willingness alone is not enough,” he said. “That is why this center, the Puerto Rico Relief Center, is so important.”