Main­land pre­pares for is­land evac­uees

Fam­i­lies make room for rel­a­tives des­per­ate to flee Puerto Rico

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - J.D. Gal­lop

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

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