In the last four weeks, the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico has been assaulted by two epic hurricanes — the Category 5 Irma on September 7 and the Category 4 Maria on September 20. Although the first hurricane left the island damaged and 80,000 residents without power, it was the second hurricane that truly devastated Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from an antiquated and neglected power and water infrastructure and fiscal bankruptcy declared in May.
Now, almost three weeks after Maria made landfall, 85 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack power, and many lack fresh water supplies. Waist-deep floodwaters have affected many areas, and numerous structures were stripped of their roofs. Whole neighborhoods in the vicinity of the island’s coast were destroyed.
Electricity may not return for up to six months due to massive damage to the island’s electrical plants and power grid. The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has debts of $9 billion and has lost 30 percent of its employees since 2012.
As much as 95 percent of the territory’s cellphone networks are not operating, and most land-line telephone and Internet service is knocked out. At least 80 percent of the island’s agriculture has been lost.
President Trump described the situation in Puerto Rico in a recent news conference. “It’s been total devastation. [The U.S.] has over 10,000 people there right now… We have to rebuild; if you look at it, the electric’s gone, the roads are gone, the telecommunication’s gone. It’s all gone. The real question is: what’s going to happen later. It’s a tough situation… This is a total devastation. When you look at Texas, and when you look at Florida, this is a whole different level. When you have a Category 4 [hurricane] wipe out an island like this… There’s absolutely nothing to work with.”
“A very big question is, what are we going to do with the power plant? Because the power plant has been wiped out. It’s not like — ‘let’s go back and fix it’ — that’s what I do. I’m a good construction guy. You don’t go back and fix it [because] there’s nothing [to fix]. The power grid is gone,” Trump continued.
“So, we have a lot of big decisions [to make]. And the dollars you’re talking about [to fix things] are really tremendous… I know the people very well; these are great people. But there’s a massive investment; you’re rebuilding all of it. At some point, as you know, there’s a tremendous amount of money already invested in Puerto Rico before the storm… but Puerto Rico was flattened.”
Some economists have estimated the total damage to Puerto Rico at $50 billion or more. Tens of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate certain areas, and the island faces long-term recovery efforts that are only just beginning. For many residents, the one-two punch of these storms has convinced them that their future does not lie on the island.
In Puerto Rico, citizens are allowed to vote for a local governor, but their sole representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jenniffer González-Colón, has limited voting rights (the territory has no representative in the Senate). On the other hand, Puerto Ricans are not subject to federal income tax.
Still, even prior to the two hurricanes, Puerto Rico had a debt of $74 billion (103 percent of the island’s GDP) and a government deficit of $2.5 billion. The territory’s gross per capita income was $23,830 as of 2013, which makes it poorer than any state of the United States.
More than 45 percent of the island’s citizens live below the poverty line. There’s over 12 percent unemployment, which is nearly triple the rate of the continental U.S. The island’s low agricultural output makes it highly dependent on the United States for oil, raw materials and food.
Although Puerto Ricans voted this year to become a state — which would be the U.S.’s 51st — many citizens did not participate in the territorial referendum because one of the island’s popular political parties told them not to vote. In any event, ratification of Puerto Rico as a state can only be executed by the United States Congress.
Currently, there are 5.4 million Americans of Puerto Rican descent living in the continental U.S., versus just 3.4 million living in Puerto Rico. Citizens of each place are allowed to travel back and forth freely. About 1.4 million of these Puerto Rican continental Americans live in the New York City area, and about 1 million are living in the state of Florida. Many of these latter groups have settled in these regions after 2006, when Puerto Rico experienced a prolonged recession.
Lately, it’s Florida that many Puerto Ricans have expressed an interest in moving to, despite the fact that it, too, is still subject to damage and power outages from hurricanes such as the particularly powerful ones this season.
Residing in the continental U.S. allows Puerto Ricans to realize many additional benefits, such as access to more Medicaid, disability benefits and a higher minimum wage, as well as the right to vote in a federal election.
Traditionally, Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S. have identified as Democrats and have elected Democratic politicians. In the election of 2016, Florida’s 29 electoral votes were given to President Trump due to a popular vote victory margin of approximately 112,000 people. This means that an influx of 112,000 or more newcomers all voting Democratic could be enough to switch the state from “Red” to “Blue” and potentially upend the results of the 2018 or 2020 federal elections.
In Aibonito, a Puerto Rican town that was more or less wiped out by Hurricane Maria, 32-year-old schoolteacher Franchesca Rivera said, “If I don’t start classes, I need income. So I’m going to go first [to Florida] with the kids and then my husband. If classes don’t start, I’ll leave in a month.”
Her husband’s Easter flower business was shattered by Maria. “We lost everything. And since it was the first year, we didn’t have insurance coverage; we had 7,000 baskets of flowers [worth approximately $80,000]. Who’s going to buy an Easter flower at Christmas if [Puerto Ricans] are in so much need?” In Tampa, the Riveras have family. At this point in time, they don’t have plans to return to Puerto Rico if they leave.
“Definitely, an influx of Puerto Ricans could have a political impact in Florida,” says Jorge Duany, a migration anthropologist teaching at Florida International University (FIU). “It’s not clear if [previously expected Puerto Rican migrants] are people who are going to stay permanently. But it is quite clear that there will be an even greater exodus because of the hurricanes. Although some [of these people] are bilingual, they will likely maintain their Latino culture, and all this will reinforce Florida’s Latinization.”
“Everyone is trying to get out. Everyone: middle class, upper class, lower class, everyone — either for a short time, or for good,” stated Professor Astrid Arraras, who works in FIU’s Department of International Relations and Politics. “The Puerto Ricans of this crisis diaspora are bringing their parents.”