Puerto Ricans flee island for Valley
Many are still without food, water, electricity
Puerto Ricans still without electricity more than five weeks after a massive hurricane devastated the island are fleeing to the U.S. mainland by the thousands.
Some, such as 36-year-old Grace Castro and her family, are settling in with relatives in Arizona, far from central Florida, where a massive wave of nearly 75,000 Puerto Ricans has arrived since Hurricane Maria slammed the U.S. territory on Sept. 20.
Hauling two large bags stuffed with clothing, Castro, 36, arrived in Phoenix a lit-
Still without electricity after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory more than five weeks ago, thousands of Puerto Ricans are headed to the mainland, including Phoenix
tle over a week ago with her 4-year-old son, Yetzael Barrios, her 63-year-old mother, Maria Arroyo, and her 91-year-old grandmother, Engracia Morales.
The four moved in with Castro’s sister, Elizabeth Reyes, 33, who has lived in Phoenix for the past two years since moving here herself from Puerto Rico with her twin 13-year-old sons.
Now that she is in Arizona, Castro said she has no plans to return to Puerto Rico, except to sell her house and collect the rest of her belongings and bring them to Phoenix.
“The plan is to stay here permanently,” said Castro, seated at a dining-room table inside her sister’s small but comfortable two-bedroom apartment near Maryland and 18th avenues in northcentral Phoenix.
In the living room, her grandmother sat on the sofa watching television under a Puerto Rican flag that hung on the wall.
Her grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s and dementia, Castro said. Her mother also has several health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, and it had become too hard to care for them both in Puerto Rico, Castro said.
Castro and her family rode out Hurricane Maria in their cement house in Toa Alta, a municipality west of San Juan, the capital.
Their house withstood Hurricane Maria, which barreled through the island as a Category 4 storm packing 140 mph winds, causing catastrophic damage and an ongoing humanitarian crisis. But Castro said she and her family survived for weeks without electricity, running water, cellphone service, the internet, television and refrigeration.
For drinking water, they resorted to collecting rain in buckets from their roof and lived on canned food they stockpiled before the storm hit.
During the day, they stood in line up to six hours to buy ice to keep cold drinks cool.
At night, afraid to go outside because of a rise in crime, they burned candles for light. They sweltered through the tropical heat unable to sleep without air-conditioning, until Reyes in Phoenix mailed them a small battery-operated light and fan.
“We were living just day to day,” Castro said. More Puerto Ricans coming to mainland
Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, nearly 20 years after the Spanish-American War, which ended with the U.S. taking possession of the island, converting it into a U.S. territory. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are free to move at will to the U.S. mainland.
Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Ricans are expected to soon leave the island due to Hurricane Maria, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
Over the next two years, Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 people, or 14 percent of the island’s 3.4 million people, according to the center.
The new exodus is on top of the 500,000 Puerto Ricans who already left Puerto Rico over the past decade seeking better economic opportunities because of the island’s ongoing financial crisis, the center said. Even before the hurricane, the island was already over $70 billion in public debt.
More than 40 percent of the island’s population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The island has an unemployment rate of 10 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Puerto Ricans have been moving to the mainland in large numbers since the 1950s, when a quarter million Puerto Ricans left and settled largely in New York City and the surrounding area as well as in Chicago.
But the latest wave has been settling largely in Florida, which, with over 1 million Puerto Ricans, has the secondhighest Puerto Rican population in the U.S. Florida is expected to soon surpass New York as the state with the largest number of Puerto Ricans.
In 2015, nearly 89,000 Puerto Ricans settled in Florida, mostly around the Orlando and Kissimmee areas in the central part of the state, more than any other year, said Cristalis Capielo, a psychology professor at Arizona State University who studies Puerto Rican migration.
By comparison, nearly that many Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida just since the hurricane hit, she said.
There are now far more Puerto Ricans living in the United States, 5.5 million, than in Puerto Rico, 3.4 million, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
As the stateside population has swelled, increasing numbers of Puerto Ricans are finding their way to states other than New York, New Jersey and Florida, settling in Texas, Georgia and Arizona, drawn by warm weather, cheaper housing and better economic opportunities, Capielo said.
Among those leaving are many professionals who can’t find jobs in Puerto Rico but are forced to take jobs in the U.S. below their education levels because they often don’t speak English, she said.
The Puerto Rican population in Arizona is growing fast, Capielo said. It grew 27 percent to 44,257 from 2010 to 2014. About 19,102 Puerto Ricans live in the Phoenix area, she said, citing U.S. census data from the American Community Survey.
She said she expects the Puerto Rican population in Arizona to swell even more as more families fleeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria move here to live with relatives.
“I wouldn’t think it would be as significant as Florida, Georgia or Texas, but we will definitely see an increase,” she said.
She also expects most of those who move to Arizona from Puerto Rico to settle here permanently because it will take years for the island to recover from the hurricane, and there is no end in sight to the island’s financial crisis, which has triggered cuts in government services. Schools also remain closed and may not reopen until the new year, she said.
“Our hypothesis is that it’s going to be a permanent relocation,” she said. Move is earlier than expected
Castro’s sister, Elizabeth Reyes, moved to Phoenix in 2015 with her two sons, seeking better employment opportunities. She shared an apartment with her stepdaughter, who moved to Phoenix from Puerto Rico eight years ago, until she found her own place.
Reyes now works as a cashier at a restaurant, the Puerto Rico Latin Bar and Grill, on Thomas Street in west Phoenix.
Castro said she was already considering moving to Phoenix before the hurricane hit because the economic crisis had made it difficult to find a good-paying job and had also spurred an increase in crime.
She had been working at a call center doing technological support in Puerto Rico, but in Phoenix she hoped to land a job in human resources or customer service using a degree in business administration she recently completed.
“What happened with the hurricane just speeded up” her move to Phoenix, Castro said.
Phoenix resident Elizabeth Reyes cares for her family. They are among thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled hurricane devastation to live with family in U.S. mainland.
Grace Castro, 36, and 4-year-old son Yetzael arrived in Phoenix a little more than a week ago to live with her sister Elizabeth Reyes after surviving for weeks in the destruction left by Hurricane Maria.
Many Puerto Ricans have fled to live with family in the Valley.