Exodus From Puerto Rico Grows as Island Struggles to Rebound From Hurricane Maria

There have been three muses in Ramoncito “El Andino” Rodríguez’s life: love, lament and la isla, Puerto Rico.

The founder of one of the oldest musical acts here, Rodríguez croons boleros and lyrical anthems that at times quicken the heart and at others create a daydreamy lull. Many of them are homages to his motherland, love songs to this Caribbean island. It was a place he never wanted to leave.

But leave, he did.

Rodríguez reluctantly abandoned Puerto Rico after several feet of floodwater spilled into his home during Hurricane Maria in September, destroying his instruments, albums and handwritten compositions. The 78-year-old joined hundreds of thousands of other islanders who boarded flights in the past five months, creating a growing diaspora that, as time passes, is increasingly unlikely to return. Rodríguez and his wife, like so many others, picked Florida, and their stateside sojourn was supposed to be temporary.

They didn’t expect stability back home to be so elusive for so long.

“I’m still here,” Rodríguez said with a sigh from his niece’s house in Homestead, Fla., in mid-February. If the past decade of Puerto Rican history is any indication, his stay could become permanent. “Destiny will decide what happens next.”

Even before Maria strafed the region, a record number of Puerto Ricans were realizing that the declining island might be where their heart is but cannot be where their feet stay. Nearly 500,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland during the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, pushing the stateside Puerto Rican population past the number living on the island last year — an estimated 3.3 million.

The government of Puerto Rico’s guess is that by the end of 2018, 200,000 more residents will have left the U.S. territory for good, moving to places such as Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England. It would mean another drop of more than 5 percent in the island’s population.

Experts say the storm and its widespread devastation undoubtedly have sped up the pace of migration as residents have dealt with extended power outages, communication lapses, infrastructure failures and, in some cases, isolation. What already was the largest exodus in the island’s history now includes people fleeing in droves simply to achieve some sense of normalcy.

Just this week, a power outage put nearly 900,000 residents in and around the capital city of San Juan in the dark and without water — again. Tens of thousands in Puerto Rico have had no electricity since the hurricane struck five months ago, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that 1 in 10 customers still won’t have it as of the end of March. The island’s bankrupt public utility has struggled to restore power amid contracting scandals, materiel shortages and intermittent blackouts, and the biggest restoration contractor, Fluor Corp., confirmed that it is pulling out of Puerto Rico in the next several weeks after reaching the funding limit of its $746 million contract.

The governor announced plans last month to privatize the electric utility, sparking standoffs with unionized workers and arousing suspicions from residents. Some municipalities such as San Sebastian, a town in the island’s northwest corner, didn’t wait and formed their own volunteer brigades to string up power lines and return electricity to thousands of residents.

A home damaged by Hurricane Maria in Comerio, Puerto Rico. The town, in the mountainous area of the island, is still mostly without power, according to Mayor Josian Santiago. (Erika P. Rodriguez/For The Washington Post)

Nearly 58,000 homes here have roofs made of blue tarps while they await federal assistance; more than 437,000 residents — about 2 of every 5 who applied so far — have received money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for home repairs.

For many, the future feels ominous.

Victor Dominguez set a June deadline for his island. If Puerto Rico doesn’t get the lights back on and move the economy, the mortgage banker will take his family elsewhere.

“I am very attached to my island, and my preference is to stay here, but I have to think what’s best for my son,” the 39-year-old said. “I’m in a moment in which I have to be very observant about what’s happening and be flexible.”

Immediately after the storm, Dominguez sent his family to the States for two weeks while he continued working and taking care of their home. When schools in Florida announced that they would take in Puerto Rican students, he and his wife considered enrolling their 10-year-old. But as long as he had a job on the island, the family decided to work and wait it out. Many of his colleagues and neighbors did not.

“Combined with this economic crisis, this was a perfect storm for the country to just empty,” he said. “There’s still a lot of people, but I hear about people who are leaving on a weekly basis. I’ve spoken to people who have this hope of coming back to Puerto Rico, but I’ve also heard from people who are happy to have permanent stability.”

José Luis Rodríguez, 53, at his home in Comerio, Puerto Rico. (Erika P. Rodriguez/For The Washington Post)

José Luis Rodríguez, 53, spends his nights in a wind-damaged wooden home pressed against a steep hillside in Comerio, in central Puerto Rico. The mosquitoes are relentless, but the loneliness is what stings; he lives by himself in a barrio where most of the residents rely on government assistance, and half of the homes are now vacant because of the hurricane.

The La Plata river that runs through the town swelled by more than 60 feet, inundating hundreds of homes, including that of Rodríguez’s daughter, 24. Having lost everything, she joined her twin sister on the mainland, leaving behind their father, who is struggling.

“They are the only thing I have,” Rodríguez said. “If I could, I would be there. My daughter said she would come back, but she doesn’t have a place to live.”

A photo of the La Plata River in Comerio, Puerto Rico. (Erika P. Rodriguez/For The Washington Post)
‘Pretty tough here’

Puerto Ricans have moved back and forth between the island and the mainland for more than a century, after they received U.S. citizenship in 1917. The circular migration is a fundamental part of the Puerto Rican experience, immortalized in the island’s art and music, because moving from the territory is as easy as moving between states.

The difference between the past decade’s migration and that of previous generations is the character, size and speed with which it threatens to change Puerto Rico’s economic and social future.

Migrants are looking for the things they can’t find on the island: jobs and stability. Puerto Rico’s teens and young adults don’t know what kinds of opportunities will be available to them as the economic depression deepens.

Hector Camacho, 24, has tried to secure a job as a high school literature teacher for more than a year since graduating from the University of Puerto Rico. He now sends résumés to places such as Wyoming and Washington, D.C., hoping for an answer.

“Will I have a roof tomorrow? That’s the worry I have,” said Camacho, who is waiting tables here at a newly opened restaurant and arcade. “I also have loans to pay. It’s been pretty tough here.”

Camacho and his friend, Christopher Rosario — who left the island a year ago and joined the U.S. Army — were talking outside a laundromat near the university campus in San Juan last week when the power went out for the second time in 24 hours. Both grew up in Utuado, in the central mountains and one of the ­hardest-hit regions of the island, and what they saw there killed any lingering hope.

“You try to see the bright side, but it’s too dim to see anything good,” Camacho said. “I’m done. Once I get a chance, I’m out.”

Puerto Rico’s government fears Camacho is not alone. The administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (PNP of Puerto Rico) published projections that put the island’s population well below 3 million within a decade, a possible 10 percent decline in line with what researchers expect to see in war zones or what happened during the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s.

“What we are observing is a major depopulation event that is not extremely common in modern history,” said Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department who provided models to Puerto Rico. “People kind of treated me like a crazy person when I put it out there.”

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Source: Washington Post