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.
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.
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. RickScott‘s – the jobs governor – “welcoming” Puerto Rican newcomers.
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 island has not witnessed such scenes of poverty, devastation and heavy U.S. military presence since the early years of the 20th century, when General Nelson Miles came ashore in Guánica in the American invasion during the Spanish-Cuban-American War. For a second time in history, Puerto Rico is completely overtaken by the U.S. forces.
This is not to criticize the federal aid that Puerto Rico so desperately needs, a consequence of two major back-to-back hurricanes in two weeks that wiped out nearly all of the island’s infrastructure – water, power, cell phone communications and some roads, stranding the island’s 3.4 million people.
Instead, it points to the stunning parallel, optical and otherwise, between then and now, our very own version of either Ground Hog Day or Back to the Future.
Not only has the military landed in Puerto Rico, but since January the territory also is ruled by a junta or fiscal board established by Congress, whose members were appointed by the House, Senate and President, and vested with greater authority than the Puerto Rico governor or legislature to reorganize the island’s $70 billion of debt.
Puerto Rico is managed from the outside in a reprise of direct colonialism, a fact not lost on many Puerto Ricans, especially pro-independence followers, a dwindling number to be sure.
And, at least in terms of the military, Puerto Rico and others asked for troops, after decades of pushing the military off the island, particularly the offshore islands of Vieques (with main operations in Ceiba) and Culebra. Today 4,600 troops are helping to get the island back on its feet, a number that the loudest critics of U.S. control over Puerto Rico criticize as too low.
Full disclosure: I was against the military presence in Vieques for its continued bombardment tests on the island, destroying the environment and killing at least one civilian.
In an ironic twist, commanding general Jeffrey Buchanan’s surname matches that of San Juan’s Fort Buchanan, the last standing U.S. Army base in Puerto Rico named after Brigadier General James A. Buchanan, the first commander of the Puerto Rico Regiment (1898 – 1903). By the way, even Fort Buchanan is closed, except for relief efforts, until further notice due to hurricane damage.
The clock is ticking on the 10-day lifting of the Jones Act on Puerto Rico both literally and figuratively. The 1920 federal maritime law dictates that Puerto Rico must use only U.S. flagships to and from its ports, which inflates the cost of merchandise from cars to concentrated juice by 20 and 30 percent, according to reports.
The law, a vestige of colonial times, increasingly is untenable and unacceptable. It is not uniformly applied – the U.S. Virgin Islands are exempt – and places undue burden on the people of Puerto Rico, which if it were a state would be the poorest state of the union.
During his last visit to Orlando, author Nelson Denis (The War Against All Puerto Ricans, Nation Books, 2015) has pushed the idea of a march from Orlando to Jacksonville to protest the Jones Act. Maritime companies such as Crowley are based in Jacksonville, where shipping containers are transferred from foreign ships to U.S. ships before sailing to Puerto Rico.
“Orlando is the answer. We can count on ourselves,” Denis said. “We need to take those first steps.”
The Jones Act is an unnecessary middle step that adds a layer of bureaucracy and costs that no longer is tolerable.
Puerto Ricans Are Coming?
Puerto Rican migration to the states, particularly Florida, is the bogeyman of the twin hurricane disasters. Yikes! More Puerto Ricans may come to Florida. That is always a possibility, one that is dependent on how quickly the island can return to a semblance of normalcy and civilian order.
Throughout the 20th century, Puerto Ricans have not really wanted to leave their beloved island. But they have reacted to economic circumstances on the ground – lack of opportunities, a depression, an economic recession. In addition, the Puerto Rico government has played a role in hastening migration to places such as New York, Hawaii and elsewhere as a way to relieve pressure on the island.
The island’s population, which reached a peak of 3.8 million in 2004, has decreased every year since then principally due to migration and currently is 3.4 million, or 10 percent lower, a reduction the Federal Reserve Board of New York, which oversees Puerto Rico’s banking system, has called “staggering.”
Children of the Diaspora
There are now 5.4 million Puerto Ricans living in the states, nearly twice as many as on the island. But that does not mean that 5 million Puerto Ricans moved here. Of the 5.4 million, only about one-third were born on the island, according to reports. That means the remaining two-thirds – or 3.7 million – are children of the diaspora or children of the children of the diaspora.
Hurricanes Irma and María may accelerate migration, which remained at an all-time high before the disasters cut a destructive path across the island.
State Rep. Bob Cortés (R-Dist. 35) states that as many as 100,000 Puerto Ricans may migrate in the next year, much higher than the 60,000 or so that leave the island annually on average. If so, that would be akin to the 120,000 or so Cubans who landed in South Florida in the Mariel boat lift, which occurred in a much shorter period of time.
Osceola County School Board member Kelvin Soto pegs the figure at 70,000.
In other words, historic.
Florida is correct to begin preparing schools and hurricane relief centers for potential Puerto Rican evacuees to help them get on their feet.
But again, only time will tell how many migrants will move.
Many Puerto Ricans are coming to Florida temporarily until the worse is over and because Florida is the center of the modern-day Puerto Rican diaspora, surpassing New York. They have family ties here.
Orlando may get an early indicator of migration by the number of students who accept the limited offer of in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities. The idea has great potential but it’s uncertain how many will take up the offer.
Thus far, the response is low. “As of Sept. 27, about 120 UCF students list their residencies as being in Puerto Rico and are eligible for in-state tuition rates,” according to the University of Central Florida.
“Nearly 20 students have already contacted Miami-Dade College with plans to transfer,” according to Lenore Rodicio, executive vice president and provost, based on a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The figures may firm up for the spring 2018 semester.