BOSTON — After the deadly Category 5 Hurricane Maria forced Puerto Rican evacuees to settle elsewhere in the United States, the city of Boston supported 142 displaced households, enrolled 193 students in its school district, provided 1,000 winter coats, hats and gloves, and distributed 36 Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
"With all of these efforts, there's more we can do and more that we could have done as communities across Massachusetts," Yusufi Vali, the director of Boston's Office for Immigrant Advancement, told lawmakers Tuesday after he presented those statistics.
Vali testified before the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities in support of a bill by Rep. Liz Miranda that would create a special commission "to better prepare the Commonwealth for climate change refugees."
Vali said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's administration supports the bill "because it understands that Hurricane Maria is not an isolated incident."
"Climate change is real, and there will be more disasters in the future," Vali said. "There is a lot we did right to support our new Massachusetts residents, reacting as best we could in the moment. Given that we anticipate more instances of climate refugees, however, in the future we must have a proactive plan in best efforts."
Along with municipal efforts to support hurricane evacuees, the state took several steps, including providing additional money to local schools experiencing an influx of Puerto Rican students, offering in-state tuition rates to evacuee college students, and convening housing, education and health officials on a task force to coordinate aid efforts.
Police officers, emergency management personnel and a six-person National Guard communications unit also deployed to the island at various points.
Miranda's bill (H 149) proposes an 11-member commission that would evaluate the state's efforts after Hurricane Maria and advise the Legislature on ways to prepare for future influxes of individuals forced to leave their homes due to "either sudden on-set disasters or slow on-set degradation of their natural environments related to at least one of the following impacts of climate change: flooding, extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and droughts."
Miranda said the arrival of displaced people after Hurricane Maria highlighted a need to define and improve existing emergency response protocols and to consider what other measures might be needed.
"We know that displacement related to climate change is on the rise," the Boston Democrat said. "It's not if it's going to happen, it's when and where."