Request Info

Researchers Address the Mental Health Needs of Hurricane Maria Survivors in Central Florida

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, an estimated 100,000 Puerto Ricans fled to Florida, the state with the largest Puerto Rican population in mainland United States. Central Florida, which encompasses Orlando and the surrounding areas, received the most Hurricane Maria survivors.

Today, nearly 28 months after the hurricane, displaced families continue to face a myriad of challenges as they rebuild their lives in Central Florida. Seth Schwartz, Ph.D., professor, and Adriane Gelpi, Ph.D., assistant professor, both from the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, examined the mental health needs of adolescent Hurricane Maria survivors in Central Florida in a project sponsored and supported by the Leslie and Loretta Copeland Foundation,

“In a study that we recently published, it was demonstrated that adult Hurricane Maria survivors who relocated to Florida were 66 percent more likely to meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to the 44 percent of people who remained in Puerto Rico. The collection of baseline data about levels of PTSD or other mental health needs is a necessary first step toward the design and implementation of effective services,” Dr. Gelpi and Dr. Schwartz noted.

The data that led to that publication was collected through a successful partnership with Father José Rodriguez, Rector of Jesus of Nazareth Episcopal Church in Orlando and a pillar of the post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rican community in Central Florida. Father Rodriguez served as a community partner in the project.

Among the Puerto Rican survivor families in his church and community center, Father Rodriguez reported that many of the adolescent hurricane survivors had gotten into disciplinary trouble in school. They also showed signs of PTSD. Although many assumed these adolescents would adapt to their new schools, many were not thriving and their behavioral responses to their trauma were worsening over time.  

The project was divided into two phases. The first was to conduct focus groups with hurricane-survivor youth and the second was to lead a community partner event to identify strategies and policies to help this population cope and thrive.

Carolina Scaramutti, a Ph.D. in Prevention Science and Community Health candidate at the Department of Public Health Sciences, conducted three focus groups in Orlando, Fla. Each of the focus groups included 10 youth participants.

Scaramutti asked them a series of questions, such as what they remembered back when they were in Puerto Rico, specifically before Hurricane Maria, if they wanted to come to the U.S.mainland before the hurricane, how they felt about leaving the island after the storm, and if there have been challenges since relocating to Orlando. She also asked questions ranging from how their experience has been in school, what has helped in dealing with challenges since being in Orlando, if they ever think about going back to Puerto Rico, and what their hopes are for the future.    

From preliminary coding, there were several themes in the responses. They included loss of friendships from Puerto Rico, various emotions experienced during the journey to Orlando, changes in relationships with parents, language barriers, discrimination at school, peer pressure, social media harassment, as well as on specific services received in Orlando and extended family support.

The community partner event, hosted at Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret in Orlando, was held on Nov. 1, 2019, and was led by Dr. Gelpi and Dr. Schwartz.

Throughout the event, community partners expressed various areas of concern, ranging from housing, community resources, bullying, lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina to obstacles in the school system and the catastrophes associated with climate change.

To disseminate the findings among the community, they were presented and discussed at Father Rodriguez’s facilities in Orlando. Dr. Gelpi, Dr. Schwartz, and the team plan to begin writing a journal manuscript based on the findings.

Father Rodriguez will be invited to come to Miami and give a talk to the Department of Public Health Sciences and the University of Miami’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas in 2020.

Published on January 21, 2020