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.
“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.
The great debate is on: How many Puerto Ricans will migrate from the island to Florida over the next year? That is much on the minds of everyone from Central Florida to Puerto Rico, from everyday people to politicians.
“More are coming?” remarked a non Hispanic white stranger to a friend who was wearing a tee-shirt that stated “Florirican,” a new term, much like “Orlando Rican,” which we’ll be hearing more often in the days and weeks to come.
Volunteering at a phone bank, I spoke with about a dozen families in Puerto Rico who were interested in relocating to Florida, most deeply worried about medical care they aren’t getting for themselves or loved ones, including cancer treatment and dialysis. Some had lived in Florida before.
Others are upset about the prospects of no work for months. “I can’t earn money here,” said one man whose wife had given birth to a boy two weeks ago. A woman said, “I work as a [private] physical therapist but I have no work now.”
A young mother of three explained that the children’s father was helping to relocate the family. She didn’t seem daunted by the approximate $3,000 price tag of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit for an Central Florida apartment.
Reinventing Puerto Rico after Hurricane María won’t be a quick fix. Puerto Rico is flattened – no water, electricity and communications with the outside world. It faces billions of dollars in uninsured damages from two hurricanes. The people are exhausted, possibly depressed, by the lack of resources.
The governor and his administration warn that the island may be without power up to four months, difficult for an already battered population to swallow – coming on top of a very long economic decline, loss of sovereignty, bankruptcy and now two hurricanes to top off the destruction.
After Hurricane María
Puerto Rico has not taken care of business for decades and things now are decidedly worse, especially for its economy and power grid. Consider this: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reportedly shaved a half-percentage point off the U.S.’s economic forecast this year, based on the storms’ effects on two large states – Texas and Florida, which together account for 15 percent of the U.S. economy.
What economic havoc will Irma and María wreak on Puerto Rico, whose economy has been in negative territory for a decade? The island’s gross product reportedly declined another 1.1 percent in fiscal year 2016 in pre-inflation dollars, making for over nine years of decline.
The Fiscal Oversight and Management Board that rules over Puerto Rico since the beginning of 2017 has a dire mess on its hands. Not only must it steer Puerto Rico through renegotiation of $70 billion in debt (excluding another $40 billion-plus in pension liabilities), it also must find a way to reconstruct the island of 3.4 million people.
Before Hurricanes Irma and María hit, the fiscal board had been pushing layoffs affecting over 130,000 government workers, seeking to enforce via federal court. Will it proceed as planned? Very likely, Puerto Rico will need to reassign many workers to rebuild the island.
Without electricity, businesses cannot return to normal, striking a major blow to economic activity (down 20 points between 2005 and 2016), low labor participation rate (40 percent) and low incomes (median household income of $18,626 as of 2015).
In case you missed it, Puerto Rico Electric Authority (PREPA) bondholders, concerned about their investment, asked to place the utility into receivership before Hurricane María. A federal court denied the petition, stating that decision was up to the fiscal board.
In the states, insurance payouts for hurricane damages and losses help kickstart recovery, but that is unlikely to happen in Puerto Rico. Many island homes are uninsured (only 50 percent have policies against wind damage), to say nothing of flood insurance (less than 1 percent), reports the Journal.
In addition, Puerto Ricans frown upon mortgage debt, which means people own their uninsured homes, many passed down through generations. These homeowners won’t be able to rebuild without substantial financial assistance. Home foreclosures, last reported at a “stubbornly high” 7 percent, may soar.
It’s too soon to say whether the twin hurricane disasters will push more peo
ple off the island toward the upper 48, including Florida. Face it, historically migration has been Puerto Rico’s relief valve. However, people currently are broke and lack resources for such a move. But they are not broken, demonstrating resolve in the face of catastrophe. Many indicate they plan to stay, according to news reports.
But if the island is not minimally up and running soon, desperation may change that.
Reinventing Puerto Rico
Paradise is not lost. As insensitive as it may sound, this island of stunning beauty has the opportunity to rethink wasteful policies and reinvent itself for a 21st century Puerto Rico, one that is responsive to, and works for, its population and not just the kleptocracy at the top.
A newly revitalized Puerto Rican parade, led by Cong. Darren Soto (D) and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and his black labradoodle, packed the heart of downtown Orlando Saturday with hundreds of Puerto Ricans waving their treasured flag.
The parade, in its second year, ended at the public plaza at the Dr. Phillips Center, where an outdoor festival continued through the afternoon and evening filled with live music, food and other vendors.
The parade capped a week of activities in the local Puerto Rican community, including a Puerto Rico Day in Tallahassee that drew two busloads of attendees in what has become an annual outing.
Orlando has hosted Puerto Rican parades going back more than 20 years but some of the wheels fell off the event after the death of Mildred Zapata in 2015, who for many years coordinated the parade and its affiliated events.
Current parade organizers Ralph Morales and Mike Moreno are said to once have been connected to the New York City National Puerto Rican Day Parade held in June, considered the largest Puerto Rican parade in the U.S.
Morales and Moreno last November pulled together a team of local activists and organizers to plan the parade, which promoted the achievements made by Puerto Ricans in business, health, music, science, arts and government.
Rival New York?
Florida’s Puerto Rican population has skyrocketed in the past 10 years as an economic crisis has gripped the island and Puerto Ricans from other states migrate to the Sunshine State. Today, over 1 million Puerto Ricans reside in Florida, and the expectation is that Orlando’s Puerto Rican parade could one day rival the New York original.
“We finally made it official,” said Orlando City Commissioner Tony Ortiz, who also sang Puerto Rico’s national hymn “La Borinqueña.” The Puerto Rico-born commissioner added that the community must push to make the parade an annual event, a sentiment echoed by Morales.
“It was not easy but the important thing is to continue,” said Morales.
This was the second Orlando parade for the organizers and, according to some attendees, it was much larger than the 2016 parade.
“There weren’t that many floats” in 2016, said an employee of Orange County who didn’t want to give her name.
From Marching Bands to Bomba y Plena
This year’s parade included 10 floats, including floats representing Costa Rica and Mexico. But there were many more participants, including marching bands from University, Evans and Edgewater high schools; a classic Toyota club of Orlando; beauty queens, motorcyclists, military veterans and bomba y plena dancers. Elected officials such as Cong. Soto, the first Puerto Rican in Congress from Florida, who was honored at a banquet earlier in the week. Puerto State Sen. Victor Torres (D), State Rep. Amy Mercado (D) and State Rep. Carlos Smith (D) also took part.