Hurricane María’s Population Impact on Florida


About 50,000 Puerto Ricans let their feet do the talking, migrating to Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane María. /Photo credit María Padilla

In the days and weeks following Hurricane María in 2017, as packed flights arrived from San Juan, people wondered just how many Puerto Ricans had fled the island that was so devastated it couldn’t provide essential public services such as water and electricity for months to come.

It was difficult to pin down a number because it’s hard to capture a moving target, as was the ongoing migration. Ironically, the further out from the natural disaster, the better the guesstimate.

Two years out, the fog is lifting, and it appears that Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties gained 46,126 Latinos since 2017, according to the census annual population estimate conducted each July. The 2018 figures were released last week, and the 2017 figures are pre-Hurricane María.

Hispanics in all of Florida jumped by 188,675 for a total of 5.6 million, making Latinos 26% of the state’s total population.

Of course, the numbers come with caveats, including that they are only annual estimates, not an actual head count, as is the 10-year census. Plus, the Latino population includes all Spanish-speaking groups, not only Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rican Migration Was Lower than Initially Estimated

But the main point is this: Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans did not migrate to Florida following Hurricane María, as suggested by former Gov. Rick Scott‘s office at the time, as reflected in airline passenger traffic. This was an inflated figure because it didn’t distinguish among passengers, many of whom included contractors, consultants and others traveling to and from the island in the hurricane aftermath.

The University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research came up with its own estimate. stating 60,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida between 2016 and 2017. And, overall, between 30,000 and 50,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the Sunshine State after María.

Not all movers were hurricane related, since “given Florida’s long-term net migration balance with Puerto Rico, one can assume that a certain number of migrants would have come to Florida even in the absence of push factors related to the hurricane” (italics mine).

In fact, Puerto Rico’s 10-plus year economic recession, which was compounded by a financial crisis, had already sent hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans packing to Florida.

Some migrants who came after María did not stay in Florida, reducing the number of Puerto Rican migrants to between 20,000 and 40,000, according to UF.

UF acknowledges this is on the low side, which is why it’s sticking with the 30,000 to 50,000 migration range to Florida cited earlier.

The university’s estimate would be in keeping with a Puerto Rican migration to Florida of 53,000 suggested by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, part of the City University of New York. So 50,000 seems to be the magic number many experts have settled on.

Of course, many more Puerto Ricans left the island. Nearly 130,000 – 4% of the island’s total population – migrated between 2017 and 2018, a significant decline. (The Ponce, Mayaguez and Aguadilla areas suffered the highest percentage losses, although San Juan lost more than 80,000 people.)

While it’s true that Florida is the most popular Puerto Rican migrant destination, not all came here. States such as Texas are increasingly luring Puerto Ricans.

Latinos in Florida

Returning to the latest Latino population estimates for Florida, Hispanics accounted for the lion’s share of the state increase. For instance, the Orange County total population increased by 27,712 from 2017 to 2018, and Hispanics accounted for 23,211 of that, or 84%. In Osceola, the Hispanic population comprised nearly all the county’s increase – 94%. Even in counties with more stable population growth such as Seminole, Latinos made up 3 of every 4 newcomers.

Because Puerto Ricans historically make up half or more of Latinos in the Central Florida area, we can extrapolate that most of the county’s Hispanic population growth is coming from Puerto Ricans – including natural growth, as well as migration from the island other states where there are large numbers of Puerto Ricans.

Population increases have always driven Florida’s growth engine, not manufacturing or finances or health care or services or any other economic sector. And, like it or not, Latinos are revving the state’s growth engine.

˜˜María T. Padilla, Editor

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