Puerto Rico's post-Maria recovery under further strain as residents flee island by the masses

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
November 06, 2017, 10:21:35 AM EST

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, killing at least 51 people, thousands of residents have fled the island with one-way plane tickets for the mainland United States.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico continues down the long and difficult road to recovery.

Seven weeks after Maria pounded the island with heavy rainfall, powerful winds and flooding, many residents in rural areas remain without access to drinking water and electricity. Maria’s devastation has left many with no other choice but to leave their homes behind for better quality of life.

Florida, a popular destination for evacuees, has organized reception centers in cities including Orlando and Miami to welcome those seeking help with resettling in the mainland.

Some agencies are also assisting evacuees with finding job opportunities. Since Puerto Ricans are migrating from a U.S. territory rather than a foreign country, evacuees will not have to repay costs of the evacuation process.

Family arrives in New York from Puerto Rico

Juan Rojas, right, of Queens, hugs his 4-year-old grandson as his daughter-in-law, Cori Rojas, left, carries her daughter through the terminal at JFK Airport after Cori arrived on a flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

More than 36,000 Puerto Rican residents have arrived in Florida since Oct. 3, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

About 1 million Puerto Ricans currently live in Florida, with the state’s Puerto Rican population set to surpass its Cuban population by 2020, according to a report by the Hispanic Federation.

Evacuees are also heading to states with large Puerto Rican populations, including Connecticut, Illinois and New York.

Students at the University of Puerto Rico have opportunities to continue their education at mainland-based institutions including Cornell University, which has offered evacuees a free semester of study.

However, will this mass migration to the mainland U.S. further cripple Puerto Rico’s efforts to bounce back after Maria?

“It’s an absolute humanitarian crisis on top of the existing economic crisis that was there before,” said Dean Myerow, bond portfolio manager for Las Olas Wealth Management of NatAlliance Securities, LLC.

Puerto Rico struggled under the burden of a $70 billion debt, as well as lack of economic growth and non-governmental jobs for its residents prior to Maria’s impacts.

Puerto Rico has seen a steady decline in population in recent years. The island had already lost 10 percent of its population between the time of the 2010 U.S. Census to 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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“The reality is that once an individual sets up roots in the U.S. with a higher-paying job and all of the essential services that won’t be restored for possibly years [in Puerto Rico], the likelihood of that person returning to the island really diminishes year after year,” Myerow said.

In the midst of the ongoing mass migration, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said that without additional aid from the U.S., his island’s recovery process would take a hit.

"Massive migration would deteriorate our [economic] base here in Puerto Rico, and would provoke significant demographic shifting in other areas of the U.S.,” he said.

The bulk of those leaving the island for better opportunities comprise Puerto Rico’s educated middle class, including valued teachers, engineers and doctors.

Puerto’s Rico’s recovery is likely to take years and as the government’s response to Florida and Texas continues following Harvey and Irma, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s staff is stretched thin.

“It’s definitely going to impact the [already struggling economy], it’s going to take them quite a while to rebuild the basic infrastructure,” said Nicholas Sicora, chief executive officer of Disaster and Disability Consultants, LLC.

“They’ve had a lot of problems with outdated systems and equipment, and to rebuild that infrastructure is going to take time, especially because getting the goods there to rebuild that infrastructure has been quite a bit of a challenge,” Sicora said.

If there’s any hope for salvaging Puerto Rico’s rapidly dwindling population, the U.S. government will need to develop a plan to keep Puerto Ricans from abandoning the island, according to Myerow.

“It’s absolutely imperative on the government to figure out a way to create incentives for people to stay in Puerto Rico and team up and rebuild with public-private partnerships to invest in the island to retain its people,” Myerow said.

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