Orange

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More Difficult Phase of Hurricane Relief Underway

The Hurricane María Disaster Relief Center at Orlando International Airport, seen in November, has helped thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees. /Maria Padilla

The 2018 new year will open a second, more difficult, phase of Hurricane María relief efforts for Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, after the new arrivals center at Orlando International Airport closes its doors on December 29.

The shuttering of the facility – which has helped 34,000 mostly Puerto Ricans since it opened October 3, including at  Miami-Dade airport and Port Everglades – will leave Central Florida with two relief centers, one each in Osceola and Seminole counties. Orange County, which partnered with agencies at the airport, is opening a relief center before year’s end.

The assistance needed in the new year will be different from the aid first offered to evacuees, who are escaping unlivable conditions on the island – as of this writing, Puerto Rico has gone nearly 100 days without full electricity, the longest blackout in U.S. history. Orlando-area agencies have to grapple with efforts to help stabilize the lives of evacuees, by definition a thornier initiative, given the lack of available resources, most significantly affordable housing.

Stabilizing Lives

What happens when temporary housing vouchers expire for thousands of people living in motels mostly in Osceola and Orange? Will elected officials continue to point “that-a-way” toward who is responsible for stepping up to the plate? Will they join forces to tackle issues together?

The Hurricane María Disaster Relief Center, as the center is officially known, was an extraordinary move by gubernatorial executive order but it didn’t come with state dollars attached. Each agency has borne the cost of its involvement.

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Dueling Numbers on Puerto Rican Migration

Dueling signs, dueling numbers – The number of Puerto Rican migrants to Florida since the hurricanes hit seems impossibly high. /Maria Padilla

Dueling numbers on Puerto Rican migration since the hurricanes hit have generated questions about the actual numbers who have landed in Florida.

Puerto Rican evacuees in Florida have surpassed the 200,000 mark, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office in a press release dated November 29 that cites the number of arrivees since October 3. But the figures beg for more scrutiny and explanation of – not because things are markedly better in Puerto Rico. They are not. Electric power is still an on-and-off thing, as is water, and many schools remain closed. Not because it’s impossible for so many people to have left on a jet plane. It is not.

In fact, the Puerto Rican migration hit historic highs even before the twin hurricanes of Irma and María set the island back 30 years, with about 500,000 leaving since the Great Recession, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York.

The migration numbers require closer inspection because they seem impossibly high. While it is true the Florida is seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans post Hurricane María, is it likely that over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida in just two months?  The state estimates do not compute with other forecasts, such as by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Of course, “real” numbers won’t be available until the census counts head by head, nose by nose, an exercise that is over two years away.  Let’s do some adding and subtracting for argument’s sake.

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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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The Great Debate: How Many Puerto Ricans May Migrate to Florida

A woman and her child are airlifted from a San Juan disaster area this week. How many Puerto Ricans will migrate to Florida?/ Department of Defense

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.

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