Central Florida

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Puerto Rico Evacuee Migration Is No Mariel

The post-Hurricane María Puerto Rican migration has drawn parallels to the Cuban Mariel boat lift of 1980 but the evacuation is no Mariel. /Maria Padilla

Puerto Ricans’ flight from natural disaster is drawing parallels to the 1980 Cuban Mariel boat lift to South Florida but this is a flawed comparison. The Puerto Rican evacuation is no Mariel.

Aside from the obvious differences of sovereignty – Cuba is independent and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States – the two population movements are different in small and significant ways.

But first, the similarities.The recent Puerto Rican migration is most like the Mariel boat lift in the audacity of its numbers: 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba over a six-month period from April to October 1980 via the port of Mariel west of Havana, braving the shark-infested Straits of Florida often on rickety boats.

Cubans were escaping a failed economy – no jobs, no housing – just as Puerto Ricans are running away with little but their clothes from the near total collapse of Puerto Rico – no economy, no infrastructure (electricity, water), no schools, no medical care, damaged roads and housing.

But there the comparison ends.

Puerto Rico – Mariel Comparison

For the Puerto Rican migration to Florida is more intense, currently at over 143,000-strong in just over a month. It is also more dispersed, with Puerto Ricans arriving all over the state, not just South Florida, as happened under Mariel. More Puerto Ricans are on the way, as post-hurricane conditions on the island defy improvement and people no longer tolerate the wait for normal.

Back in April 1980, Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and took refuge inside, followed by thousands of others in a matter of days. Weeks later, Castro opened the port of Mariel, stating anybody who wanted to leave could do so – a first.

In contrast, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has clung to Puerto Ricans for dear life, understanding full well the dire financial and demographic implications of a continuing stream of people abandoning economically-troubled Puerto Rico for the states.

He grossly overestimated his and his cabinet’s ability to grapple with the disaster and rapidly improve conditions on the ground. In an irresponsible move, Rosselló took over 40 days following Hurricane María to request federal temporary housing assistance (known as TSA) for the worse-impacted island residents, perhaps fearing that TSA would throw open the migration floodgates.

It’s High Tide

But he couldn’t turn back the tide. About 100,000 Puerto Ricans are expected in Florida by year’s end – on top of the more than 143,000 who have already arrived, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office. In fact, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered to airlift Puerto Ricans off the island to New York, Florida and elsewhere. And the Center for Puerto Rican studies in New York estimates between 114,000 and 213,000 residents may leave the island each year in the hurricane aftermath, with Florida a primary destination.

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Hurricanes Creating Opportunities for Public Policies

Hurricanes Irma and María have created public policy opportunities in Florida.

The twin hurricanes of Irma and María are creating opportunities for public policies that were once objectionable or non priorities in Florida. As more hurricane evacuees arrive in Florida, state elected officials are scrambling to respond to the sudden influx of Puerto Ricans.

Here are a few examples:

  • Game changer – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked FEMA for Transitional Shelter Assistance or TSA, which he had been reluctant to do before. And understandably so. TSA would give temporary housing assistance to hurricane victims, a financial incentive that would encourage people to leave the island. The governor can hardly afford a continued outflux of people. Currently, few Puerto Rico businesses are open and few people are working, which means nobody is paying taxes. The island is broke –hence, the $4.9 billion federal emergency loan – and getting older by the day as the proportion of elderly increases. If people suddenly have the means to move, many will come to Florida, as has been the case for over a decade. TSA helps the people but it hurts the island.
  • Forcing the hands The continuing stream of Puerto Ricans into Florida – over 70,000 in the last month, according to the governor’s office – is forcing the hands of local elected officials. For instance, housing affordability is an ages-old regional issue. The Legislature raids state affordable housing funds each year. Now officials are tasked with the serious job of finding decent and affordable housing for new arrivals. Remember, it’s hard to land a job without a permanent address. One state representative mentioned tent cities. Others have talked about mobile homes or trailers. Would Central Floridians, Hispanic or not, accept this?
  • Jobs, jobs, jobs – The influx of working-age Puerto Ricans is a godsend for the region’s employers, many of which are desperately looking to hire. With a September state unemployment rate of 3.8 percent – essentially zero unemployment – Puerto Ricans represent potential new hires at a time when companies, from tourism to retailers, are engaged in Christmas or seasonal hiring. These may not be permanent jobs or good-paying jobs in our low-wage region. Nonetheless, they are jobs for people looking to earn money. Thus, employers will be among those pushing hard for a resolution to affordable housing issues for hurricane evacuees. Perhaps this also helps explain Gov. Rick Scott‘s – the jobs governor – “welcoming” Puerto Rican newcomers.

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Puerto Rican Diaspora: Think Local

Puerto Ricans in Florida need to think local to help the Puerto Rican migrants pourng in the state daily. The relief center at Orlando International Airport processed a record 1,000 Puerto Rican migrants in a single day earlier this week. /screenshot WFTV-Channel 9

The Puerto Rican diaspora of Orlando needs to think local to help the survivors of Hurricane María who are pouring into Florida from Puerto Rico.

As  hurricane aid continues to lag in Puerto Rico, more migrants are heading to the Orlando area, desperate to escape a lack of food, water and electricity and eager for their children to attend school. Many people arrive with little money and no specific plans.

Because Puerto Ricans in the states cannot control what does or does not happen on the island concerning relief supplies, the Florida diaspora should start thinking of boosting resources here.

This is not to say that islanders are on their own – far from it, as the bond between aquí y allá, or here and there, is tight – but to remind Central Floridians that help is needed here where we live and work as well.

“Don Pedro”

“We cry daily with the evacuees,” said Marytza Sanz of the organization Latino Leadership, which has been tending to Puerto Rico evacuees at its relief center on East Colonial Drive. “The move to Orlando is not a planned move. It’s an emergency move.”

She tells the story of 85-year old “Don Pedro” who traveled to Orlando with 75 cents in his pocket and was set to sleep on the steps of St. James Catholic Church in Downtown Orlando, thinking no one would assault an old man on the steps of a church. Sanz helped locate temporary shelter.

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Hurricane María Galvanizes Puerto Ricans in Central Florida

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has demonstrated grace and leadership under the island’s extreme circumstances./Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico

The devastation caused by Hurricane María in Puerto Rico has galvanized the diaspora in Central Florida to  help the island.

CASA is a coalition of organizations working to send food and supplies to Puerto Rico. At the podium are Jimmy Torres-Velez and Peter Vivaldi (partially obscured). /Facebook

About 14 local and other groups have formed a coalition called CASA – Coordinadora de Apoya, Solidaridad y Ayuda – to collect basic supplies: water, batteries, disposable diapers, canned and dry foods – to send to the island of 3.4 million people ravaged by the storm. Residents are without power and cell phone services knocked out by the Category 4 hurricane, the worse to hit Puerto Rico and the entire United States in decades, according to the National Hurricane Center. It may take months to restore a sense of normality to Puerto Rico.

First Baptist

The group this week held a press conference at Acacia Network, formerly Asociación Borinqueña,  announcing its plans. Several Orlando-area locations are designated drop-off points, including First Baptist Church Orlando, where a shipping container is set up.

This is the second container to be stationed at First Baptist that is destined for Puerto Rico, an effort   initially spearheaded by Peter Vivaldi.

The first container, filled with 25,000 pounds of supplies, was prompted by Hurricane Irma and was due to arrive on the island Friday, September 22.

The response to the Puerto Rico catastrophe has been visceral, emotional – and impressive. Hurricane María tore through Puerto Rico and also tore through the hearts of its sons and daughters living in Florida and throughout the nation.

“Ver esto me emociona, YESS Ya la ayuda va para Puerto Rico 🇵🇷 yo sé que hay mucha gente preparándose para ayudar eso me llena de tranquilidad..GRACIAS DIOS,” wrote Realtor Karen Díaz de Suárez on Facebook.

Hurricane María: One of Many Disasters

Puerto Rico hasn’t caught a break for the past 10 years, and that’s putting it lightly. The island, dogged by a decade-old recession, came under the control of a congressionally-mandated fiscal board due to its inability to pay $70 billion in debt. The Fiscal Oversight and Management Board in the spring invoked a special bankruptcy for Puerto Rico, generating protests and tense negotiations with bondholders. Then came Hurricane Irma, a category 3 hurricane that knocked out 70 percent of the island’s power. While still in the throes of recovering from Irma, Hurricane Maria followed about two weeks later, capsizing the entire island. Puerto Rico lost all its electric power and cell phone communications (a small percentage has been restored).

But 5 million Puerto Ricans live in the states, 1 million in Florida alone – more than the 3.4 million who reside on the island. The diaspora is in an excellent position to lend a hand and generate relief funds.

Supplies Needed

Here are items that are needed on the island, per the office of the governor of Puerto Rico:

Bottled water

Disposable plates, cups and utensils

Soap, deodorant, toothpaste, tootbrushes

Over-the-counter medications: ibuprofen, aspirin, antibiotic cream

Bed sheets

Pajamas for men, women and children

Baby items: disposable diapers, baby wipes, baby formula


Sleeping bags, cots


Pots and pans

Canned and dry food

Dog food

Mosquito repellant

Where to Drop-off 

  •  Directly to the shipping container at First Baptist Church of Orlando, 3000 S. John Young Pkwy., 32805
  • Acacia Network (Centro Borinqueño), 1865 N. Econlockhatchee, 32817
  • Orlando Eye, 360 International Drive, 32819
  • Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, 15 South Orlando Ave., Kissimmee 34741

Financial Help

Be careful to whom you donate money. The island’s First Lady Beatriz Rosselló has set up the website unidosporpuertorico.com and is accepting donations.


Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has asked stateside Puerto Ricans not to travel to the family in a desperate attempt to find family members. But it is OK to travel to the island as part of an organization of volunteers, such as the Red Cross and others.

“I know it’s frustrating but it’s also true that the streets are dangerous and we are still operating under emergency protocols. I do not recommend it because it is a personal risk,” the governor said.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor