Mainland prepares for island evacuees
Families make room for relatives desperate to flee Puerto Rico
It has been a trying week for Erika Rodriguez, who continues to reach out to family members in Puerto Rico who are struggling in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
With much of the island without power and short of fuel and clean water, Rodriguez wants her family to relocate to the U.S. mainland while authorities in Puerto Rico try to rebuild an already fragile infrastructure struck by one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. But she’s having a lot of trouble trying to get to the island to retrieve them.
“We’re trying to find something, but there are no flights,” said Rodriguez of Satellite Beach, Fla. “We’re calling around. One of my friends was trying to leave from Orlando, and at the last minute the flight was canceled. They’re also say-
ing that they might be able to get you in but there are no guarantees that (they) can get you back.”
In Puerto Rican enclaves of cities around the country, people such as Rodriguez are making room for relatives whose lives on the island have been washed away. And city officials are bracing for the influx of evacuees desperate to flee for shelter with friends and family.
It’s too early to know how many of the island’s 3.4 million residents will try to leave or just how ready communities in the mainland USA are to absorb them. If migration patterns hold, much of the influx will be to the South. A Pew Research Center study shows that as the island was in the early throes of its economic crisis and bankruptcy, about 48% of people leaving Puerto Rico moved to the South, including 31% who relocated to Florida.
More than 1 million people of Puerto Rican descent live and work in Orlando. Monse Vargas, president of the non-profit La Casa de Puerto Rico, said preparations must be made for housing, job training and other services should families there take in evacuees.
“There are people who are trying to come. They have family in Central Florida or they’re coming here to buy supplies to take back,” Vargas said. “But there is a lot of desperation.”
Jackie Cruz of Port St. Lucie, Fla., said she is more than willing to bring all of her family — including her mother, aunt, sister, her husband’s children, grandchildren and others — to the mainland. “We’re all trying to get together with my sister in Jersey to figure out how we can bring them here. They won’t leave anyone behind. We’re trying to convince them being here is better than being where they are. They don’t know anything outside of Puerto Rico.”
Officials in Florida and other states were getting ready. Florida will assist with “whatever is needed, both in Puerto Rico and in Florida,” said Kerri Wyland, a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has asked the state’s public colleges and universities to allow students displaced by the storm to pay tuition at an in-state rate.
Meanwhile, the situation in Puerto Rico, where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty rate, grows more dire by the day. Though there is no shortage of people who want to fly in with supplies, the logistics are daunting. Roads remain impassible. Some communities are so remote they are accessible only by helicopter. Loved ones living stateside feel helpless.
Janice Rivera of Rockaway, N.J., said her brother and sister live in Cedra, in the middle of the island. She said one of her nephews lost his home’s roof. She is worried about the scarcity of food; her family sometimes eats the avocados, bananas and plantains that fall from the trees. Rivera can’t even send cash through the bank because her siblings can’t access the money.
“They say it will take two months for power to come back, and we worry about what they are going to eat,’’ she said. “What are they going to do, and if they are flooded, where are they going to live?”
Contrtibuting: George Andreassi II, David Dorsey, Monsy Alvarado