Puerto Ricans flee Maria's devastation

Many seen likely to settle on mainland as island struggles to restore power, water


Photographs by AP/RAMON ESPINOSA

Efrain Diaz Figueroa (right) observes his sister’s destroyed home on Monday in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The 70-year-old is waiting for a relative to arrive to take him to stay with family in Boston.

MIAMI -- Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans left for the U.S. mainland to escape the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, but with conditions back home still grim, many find themselves scrambling to build new lives away from the island.

About 85 percent of the island's residents still lack electricity and 40 percent are without running water, and neither service is expected to be fully restored for months. On Tuesday night, House lawmakers unveiled a bill that would provide $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane and wildfire relief requested by President Donald Trump's administration.

Particularly in states with large Puerto Rican populations, such as New York, Illinois, Florida and Connecticut, people are bunking with relatives while trying to find longer-term housing, jobs and schools for their kids.

"We're going to be here indefinitely," Lourdes Rodriguez, a 59-year-old retiree, said in an interview at her daughter's home in Tampa. "It's been crazy, totally unexpected, like nothing I've experienced before."

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She said she thought it would be a short stay with her daughter in Florida, but without power and water at her home in the northern town of Vega Baja, she plans to stay in Florida.

In San Juan, Efrain Diaz Figueroa, 70, sat listening to a battery-powered radio in the wreckage of his home, its walls collapsed into the yard and clothes and mattresses soaking in the rain. A sister was arriving to take him to family members in Boston. "I'll live better there," Figueroa said.

There have been several major migratory exoduses from Puerto Rico to the mainland over the years, most recently during the past decade when the island's population shrank by about 10 percent because of a long economic slide that shows no sign of easing anytime soon.

Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20, and, according to the latest figures from the island government, killed at least 45 people. It also created a new surge that could have lasting demographic effects on Puerto Rico and on the mainland.

"I think that we could expect that people who did not plan to stay permanently might do so now," said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University who has long studied migration from the island.

Many of those who left are elderly or sick people who fled or were evacuated because of the dangers posed by living on a tropical island with no power or air conditioning and limited water for an indefinite period of time.

While Puerto Ricans have grown accustomed to severe weather and hardship, the extent of this storm's devastation has been more than many could bear.

"We experienced something similar with [Hurricane] Hugo more than 20 years ago. Then came [Hurricane] George," said Carmelo Rivera, a 78-year-old from the central town of Caguas who is staying with relatives in Long Island, N.Y. "But nothing has been as hard as Maria."

With Congress under pressure to provide urgent help to storm victims in Puerto Rico as well as in Texas and Florida, the House measure includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster-relief fund, as well as $16 billion to replenish the nation's flood insurance program.

The legislation also would give Puerto Rico access to a $4.9 billion low-interest Treasury loan so it doesn't run out of cash as the island recovers. That funding is needed to help the territory pay government salaries and other expenses after Oct. 31. The bill is expected to be voted on by the full House later this week and then taken up by the Senate as early as next week.

It's too soon to know exactly how many Puerto Ricans have decamped for the mainland, but Florida says more than 20,000 have arrived in the state since Oct. 3. There were already about 1 million Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State, second only to New York.

Many U.S. agencies and jurisdictions are helping islanders make emergency transitions.

Law schools including Florida A&M and the University of Connecticut have agreed to accept students from Puerto Rico. Miami-Dade County Public Schools have offered to adapt the curriculum and change bus routes to help evacuee children. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has said displaced teachers won't have to pay for certificates to work in his state and ordered that licensing fees for certain professionals such as real estate agents and barbers be suspended for people fleeing the storm.

Still, it's a tough transition for many.

Rodriguez said her family members are trying to figure out whether they need to sell their house. They don't want to but may have no choice if they are to survive and build a new life stateside. After initially staying at her daughter's home, she, her husband, another daughter and two grandchildren now are all living crammed into a two-bedroom apartment.

Rodriguez said they had considered moving to the mainland before but they never imagined it would be under such dire, forced circumstances: "It's just been a desperate situation."

Information for this article was contributed by Ben Fox of The Associated Press and by Kevin Whitelaw and Erik Wasson of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 10/12/2017

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