A few weeks after Hurricane Maria flooded his northern Puerto Rican hamlet of Media Luna, Alberto Cabrera was shoveling rank mud and twisted debris out of a neighbor’s house.
At 60 years old, Cabrera said he had a duty to help those around him: He’s the youngest person in the village.
Even before the monster storm hit this island of 3.4 million, Puerto Rico was aging at a break-neck pace. A decade-long recession and 10 percent unemployment forced droves of young people to flee the island to seek work on the mainland.
According to a 2016 study published by the Puerto Rican government, 23.3 percent of the population is older than 60 years old. That’s higher than any country in the Caribbean or Latin America, except for the U.S. Virgin Islands, a retirement hotspot.
While Puerto Rico’s total population decreased by almost 200,000 people between 2010 and 2014, the population older than 60 rose by almost 250,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And that trend has likely kicked into overdrive after Maria.
Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates the island will lose a startling 14 percent of its population between 2017 and 2019. That’s 470,335 residents gone, most of them working-age adults. And many are expected to head to Florida.
“In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation,” the Hunter College researchers said. “Our projections indicate that Florida is the state most likely to be affected by the exodus — with an estimated annual flow of between 40,000 and 82,000 people.”
That means the island’s seniors will increasingly have to fend for themselves.
More than a month after Maria, many of Puerto Rico’s older residents remain physically and economically stranded, said Jose Acarón, the Puerto Rico director for AARP, formerly the the American Association of Retired Persons
About three-quarters of the island is still without power, and that’s created a dizzying array of obstacles.
With banks and ATMs out of commission, seniors aren’t able to access their Social Security funds. Dead traffic lights have turned roads into hellish obstacle courses that are intimidating to even the most agile drivers. And then there are those who are trapped in apartment blocs with useless elevators and who can’t get up and down stairs.
“If there’s anything positive about this hurricane, it’s that it has pulled back the curtain on just how vulnerable the aging population is,” Acarón said. “A hurricane has so many ramifications that people just don’t think about.”
This week, AARP began taking food to some 6,000-7,000 seniors who are stuck in 18 communities. But that program only has funding for about a month.
One of the challenges of reaching Puerto Rican seniors is that just 2 percent live in elder-care facilities or retirement communities. The vast majority are scattered across the island, relying on family and friends.
Media Luna is a prime example.
As Cabrera was helping clean out the house of his 93-year-old neighbor, his wife, Aurea Gonzalez, 62, had become the unofficial caretaker of their 66-year-old neighbor who lost all of his blood pressure medication in the flood and was having trouble walking.
Aurea said members of the community — a smattering of about 20 homes in a rural region of Toa Baja — have to take care of each other because all the young people have left to find work. She has children in Orlando and Texas.
“It’s the young people who are migrating,” she explained. “Us older people, we don’t speak English and some of us don’t even know how to write. There would be no work for us, or anything, up there.”
It’s unclear how long it will take for Puerto Rico’s infrastructure to be senior-ready again.
Edgardo García is the owner of Life Senior Care Center in Gurabo, on the eastern part of the island, which was home to 102 people. The day before the storm hit, García said he was feeling worried and anxious and, in what many told him was an excess of caution, he moved 32 of his most fragile patients to a municipal shelter and sent the rest home with family.
It was a smart decision. The center was flooded with four feet of water, part of the roof was torn off and a wall collapsed.
“We saved 102 seniors,” García said. “It could have been catastrophic and I would probably be in jail, but thank God we were proactive.”
Over the course of the next few weeks, he moved the evacuees from one shelter to another, but the island’s total breakdown in communication meant they weren’t getting they supplies they needed. He eventually had to put some of his clients into other, undamaged, nursing homes.
García is trying to rebuild, but he says he’s been struggling to find construction materials. He’s also trying to raise money to buy solar panels and batteries because it could take as long as a year for municipal power to be restored in his region.
What may be harder to repair is the ecosystem of service providers — pharmacists, nurses, physical and respiratory therapists — that his center and the elderly rely on. Many of those professionals, he said, will be tempted to head to the United States.
Back in Media Luna, Cabrera said his children have tried to get him to move to the mainland but that he’s not leaving the village where his family has been for three generations.
As a group of young men drove by the town gawking at the damage, Cabrera yelled after them, “We need people! We need your hands!”
The car didn’t slow down.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss