LAKELAND, Fla. -- New numbers are in showing just how many people born in Puerto Rico have moved to Florida since October 2017, the month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
- New figures shed light on how many Puerto Ricans have moved here
- Orange, Osceola, Polk lead state in number of driver's license applications
- Some evacuees are still struggling, others say they have better life
- FULL COVERAGE: Crisis in Puerto Rico: Stories of perseverance after Hurricane Maria
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported there were at least 32,622 statewide who have applied for driver's licenses. Orange County received the most at 9,154, followed by Osceola County with 4,683 and Polk County with 2,837.
Sylvia Mejias is an evacuee who moved to Lakeland. She said her job as a teacher in Polk County pays more than it did in Puerto Rico.
"I have a better job here. My husband has a better job. We are moving forward... I can see progress," Mejias said.
She and her family evacuated Puerto Rico last October. In less than a month, she was hired by Polk County Public Schools. Her husband is now working for the school district, too, as a school safety guardian.
"I think we have a better life here than in Puerto Rico," Mejias said.
More than 690 Puerto Rican evacuees were enrolled in the school district during the 2017-2018 school year, Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Geary said.
According to the driver's license statistics, 2,766 people born in Puerto Rico have moved to Hillsborough County since October 2017.
Milagros de la Rosa, who volunteers with I am the Group Foundation, which helps many of the hurricane evacuees, says many in Hillsborough are struggling.
"The majority are living with relatives," de la Rosa said in Spanish.
She's in the same boat. Born in the Dominican Republic but having lived in San Juan for 20 years, she left in spring 2018 after the lights in her husband's law office, where she worked, never came back on. Her inability to speak English has prevented her from getting an administrative job. As a result, she and her husband don't have any income to pay for housing, living at her sister's house in the meantime.
"I sad. I feel sad," de la Rosa said.
But she doesn't want to go back to Puerto Rico, because said the jobs aren't there, either.
"It's not easy the situation in this moment," de la Rosa said.
Catholic Charities is another organization helping Hurricane Maria evacuees. Its spokesman says it has helped 263 Puerto Rican families in the Tampa Bay area with rental assistance and deposits, clothing, food, transportation and clothing services. It's currently helping 27 evacuee families still living in hotels.
Mejias said she's also hearing from relatives still living on the island that the situation isn't improving, and people continue to lose their jobs, including her uncle. She encourages Puerto Ricans still struggling to make a new life in Florida to not give up.
"I had a lot of doubts when I came... the language barrier. Every day it's getting better. If you work hard, you try to learn, you adapt, you're going to make it," Mejias said.