‘We would go back’: will Hurricane Fiona worsen Puerto Rico’s population drain?

Hurricane Maria, earthquakes and federal neglect were already driving the US territory’s youth and talent to the mainland

Bad Bunny blasted from the jukebox, filling the air at the Caribbean Social Club in Brooklyn, a bar Puerto Ricans have been coming to since the 1970s.

After Hurricane Maria hit and devastated the US territory in September 2017, reggaeton artists gradually trumped decades-old salsa favorites, as more new and young New Yorkers such as Paula Colón and Roberto Cruz began frequenting the bar.

Colón and Cruz moved to New York City after the category 5 Maria decimated the island and left them without a jobs.

Colón, 40, worked at the Saks Fifth Avenue in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, but the storm ruined it and it closed. She asked to be transferred to another store, and received an offer in New York – making considerably more money than on the island.

So two months after that storm, she packed her bags, moved to New York, and waited for her husband and children to follow after her kids finished the school year.

“Those were dark and difficult days for me because I had to be apart from my husband and children,” Colón said. “I look back and I have no idea how I did that.”

Later, Cruz, too, lost his job in a lending company in Puerto Rico amid a sharp decline in loan applications after the hurricane, as recovery faltered.

The couple are typical examples of a stark reality many Puerto Ricans face on the island that’s contributing to a steady exodus of youth and talent that only accelerates every time another catastrophe strikes and batters the essentially bankrupt economy.

Hurricanes in 2017, earthquakes and a pandemic in 2020 – all during the Trump administration – now another hurricane, against a backdrop of the climate crisis and federal neglect.

Puerto Rico hadn’t recovered from Maria, let alone the other problems, when Hurricane Fiona hit last month, causing power cuts across a faulty grid, more broken infrastructure, chaos, hunger and death, with Joe Biden admitting a history of inadequate assistance and local government once again turning to austerity measures.

The island’s population declined almost 12% between 2010 and 2020, according to the US Census Bureau, and a third of that drop occurred the year after Hurricane Maria. Maria, also, came just two weeks after category 5 Hurricane Irma, exacerbating the havoc.

Many now wonder whether Fiona will drive yet another wave of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland, perhaps to join the almost three-quarters of million of their fellows living in New York, including Colón and Cruz.

Thousands died after Hurricane Maria and thousands were still living under tarps five years later. Category 1 Fiona was less deadly and damaging but still grim, especially for poorer areas.

Too many are still without power and water and the southern municipalities of Puerto Rico were hit the hardest. For some it’s likely to be the last straw.

“Every time there’s a natural disaster, there’s going to be displacement,” said Hernando Mattei, a demography professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) school of medicine. “How big it will be [this time] is uncertain.”

On top of jobs being lost, the same year Maria hit, the island’s government ordered about 180 schools to shutter. For a family like Colón and Cruz, with two children still in school, the options for a better education in Puerto Rico became slimmer.

Many families moving to places with vibrant Puerto Rican communities, such as the Orlando area, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, leave behind for sale signs on their homes.

“This really spiked after Hurricane Maria,” said Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei, an assistant professor at the graduate school of planning at UPR. “Immediately after the hurricane, property prices decreased because there wasn’t any power or water, there were severe impacts and homes were damaged.”

It created a fertile market for investors snapping up bargain houses and establishing real estate businesses offering short-term rentals or individuals buying second homes to make the most of the paradise island, but popping back to their mainland homes every time a hurricane bears down.

Many more outside investors now live on the island and take advantage of generous tax breaks, fueling soaring property prices. In a classic case of gentrification, such arrivals have been displacing local Puerto Ricans who can’t afford the price hikes. Some locals have had to move out of their communities after investors buy the buildings.

Santiago-Bartolomei said that this recent history could repeat itself after Hurricane Fiona, prompting investors to eye properties in damaged areas.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if prices drop in certain attractive areas,” he said. “It all depends on how the recovery and reconstruction process takes place.”

Puerto Rico is an example of the migration of workers from rural regions like most of the island to metropolitan centers. Puerto Ricans can move easily from the island to the rest of the US because they were granted US citizenship more than a century ago after its invasion during the Spanish-American war. However, the territory isn’t a state and its residents enjoy fewer federal benefits.

A huge migration wave of Puerto Ricans to the rest of the US occurred in the 1950s as the island’s economy shifted from agriculture to manufacturing and tourism.

Today, Puerto Ricans are contending with a different type of economic shift. The Obama administration signed a bill in 2016 known as Promesa, a law to help Puerto Rico exit its colossal economic crisis.

But the move led to a series of austerity measures and budget cuts to public services that has left the island bereft of talent, with many young professionals such as doctors and teachers seeking better-paying jobs abroad.

For many Puerto Ricans who leave the island, however, the question is not whether, but when they plan to return to the island. Colón and Cruz visit family there every year.

“If we could be economically stable there, we would go back,” said Colón. “I love Puerto Rico. It’s our home.”


Coral Murphy Marcos in New York

The GuardianTramp

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