It had not even been a week since Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico nearly destroyed, and Stephanie Santiago was running out of milk for her 3-year-old daughter. In addition, the young Wilyanielis’ skin was covered with red rashes, an allergic reaction to the stifling heat and humidity.
“It’s not just that the milk was running out, it was that there was nothing left in the few supermarkets open and we were running out of cash,” said Santiago, who lives in Carolina, just east of San Juan, and has another 6-month-old daughter. “How do you explain that to a child?”
On the third night of listening to the cries of her daughters, Santiago made the same decision that many other Puerto Ricans have made since the catastrophe: go to the airport in San Juan and get on the first available flight to mainland United States.
The final destination for Santiago: Deerfield Beach.
Following the disaster caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — which triggered floods and mudslides and left the island of 3.5 million people without electricity or potable water — thousands of Puerto Ricans are expected to leave their homes on the island to come to the United States. That exodus will have a significant impact in Florida, one of the main destinations of Puerto Rican migration, which has increased every year over the past decade because of the economic recession on the island.
The tentacles of the crisis created by the storm are already being felt in South Florida.
“We have been concentrating on getting help to send to the island, but now people are coming to the office telling us ‘I just arrived and I have nothing, how can you help me?,’” said Luis DeRosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of South Florida, based in Miami.
“Now we are working to implement Plan B: raise hard cash to create a fund to help those coming in with nothing,” he said. “We want to give them a stipend of $200 or $300 to help them get started.”
Between Sept. 21 and 28, a total of 18 flights loaded with passengers from San Juan arrived at Miami International Airport, with 2,700 people on board (including tourists), according to figures from the airport communications department.
State and local authorities are also preparing for the potential wave of migration. Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently announced that the Sunshine State will assist the displaced. Scott asked public universities to allow Puerto Rican students to pay tuition at Florida residents’ prices.
The Miami-Dade school system also expects to receive some of the 350,000 Puerto Rican students whose schools have not yet been able to open and it is not known when classes will resume. Minors could be sent to live with relatives or it could be full families who leave the island, at least temporarily.
Florida is home to more than one million Puerto Ricans, of which about 100,000 live in the southern end of the state. Most others live in the Orlando and Tampa area.
Adriana Santiago arrived from San Juan to Fort Lauderdale with her three young children on Sept. 26, leaving behind her husband, other relatives and the family home in a middle-class neighborhood of San Juan.
“Leaving behind my loved ones, my community, my life,” Santiago said.
She understood that she would have to leave Puerto Rico shortly after seeing the images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria on a television that a neighbor connected to a battery.
In the neighborhood where Santiago lives, the winds knocked down trees and a few houses were flooded. However, without communication with the rest of the island and without being able to see or read the news, Santiago and her husband were unaware of the magnitude of the tragedy.
“When we came in contact with the news, we realized that elsewhere buildings had collapsed, there were landslides, things were much worse. There were people climbing on the roofs of their houses waiting to be rescued,” Santiago said. “With the passing days, the situation got worse instead of better, gas was running out.”
For many Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens and can travel to the United States without a visa, migrating to the north “has always been seen as an escape valve,” said Jorge Duany, director and professor at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
“[Going to the U.S.] is a strategy of survival in the face of economic hardship and now even more with the [hurricane] disaster,” said Duany, who for years has analyzed Puerto Rican migration, a subject he addresses in his most recent book Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans.
Duany said that a new exodus because of Hurricane Maria could present different characteristics to the migration from the island over the last decade.
“There could be a more widespread and less selective migration phenomenon. So far, the majority of people coming are between 20 and 40 years old, people of childbearing age and women of reproductive age,” he said.
“We could now see more people over 65 and children,” who represent the most vulnerable population after the storm, Duany said.
For newcomers, the immediate reality is one of uncertainty.
Several people interviewed over the past week, such as Stephanie Santiago and Adriana Santiago (not related), said they have not yet decided whether to enroll their children in school. They hope to be able to return to the island soon.
“I’m going to take a week to see how things are,” said Adriana Santiago, whose husband is a lawyer and stayed in Puerto Rico helping neighbors and contacting his clients.
“Right now everything is up in the air,” said Stephanie Santiago, whose husband works with an airline freight company and travels often. Santiago is not yet sure if they would settle permanently in Deerfield Beach, where her mother lives.
“Who knows, maybe we have to prepare to start a new chapter in our lives,” she said.
For others, like Wanda Gómez, who has lived in Miami for 16 years, the greatest hope is to be able to bring her loved ones from the island soon. However, in many cases that represents a great challenge.
Gómez was in Juana Díaz, a rural area near Ponce, tending to her mother Teresa Torres when the storm tore threw. Torres, 85, recently had heart surgery.
“I want to bring her because she is very delicate and there are no hospitals there, the countryside is incommunicado. But I can’t because we have not been able to contact her doctor to give us her prescription so we can purchase the medicines here,” Gómez said, her voice cracking.
Gómez managed to leave from San Juan on a flight to Chicago and then connect to Miami, thanks to a humanitarian flight by United Airlines. She considers herself lucky. She said that thousands of people were waiting at the airport to leave the island.
“The situation is subhuman, you cannot live there. No one can live without water, without food, without light, without the basic necessities,” said Gómez. “I think the crisis is going to get worse and the patience of the people is going to be exhausted … and many more will come.”
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