Original Post: https://features.weather.com
A year after Hurricane Maria destroyed Vimarie Cardona’s home in Puerto Rico, she and two daughters faced homelessness in Central Florida. The federal program paying for their stay in a hotel near Orlando was set to end. Cardona’s full-time job, making beds at a Disney hotel, doesn’t pay enough to rent an apartment.
“Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? Put my kids in a car? And then go where? Sleep where?” she asked, holding her palms skyward. She was wearing the puffy blue-and-white pinstriped uniform of a housekeeper at the Magic Kingdom. If it were just her, she added, she could live in her car. The $1,600 a month she earns — before taxes — just isn’t enough for rent, car payments, daycare and food.
Cardona is part of the desperate exodus from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland in the aftermath of Maria. Tens of thousands of transplants are still adrift, many feeling they can’t go home, yet struggling mightily where they are — foreshadowing future waves of climate-driven migration across the globe. Cardona’s experience underscores the human consequences of the intensifying compound effects of climate change and of governments often ill-equipped to safeguard people in the places from which they flee.
Those who fled Puerto Rico a year ago were traumatized first by the terror of the hurricane. Then, in its wake, came the prolonged suffering without power, clean water or communications. That was followed by an anguishing decision to leave behind relatives, friends, pets and all they knew to undertake a worrisome journey to the unknown with virtually no preparation, belongings or money. Most arrived on the U.S. mainland in a state of shock with only a suitcase in hand. Many were children. Almost all are American citizens.
Then, for the neediest and most vulnerable families, came the evictions and heightened uncertainty. In mid-September, 45 families from Puerto Rico who had sought shelter in Orlando and neighboring Kissimmee faced eviction from hotels because of the expiration of the “Transitional Sheltering Assistance” provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“Many will be leaving (their hotel rooms) in wheelchairs, crutches and I even know one family with someone who will be carted out in a hospital bed,” said Father José Rodriquez of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Orlando.
FEMA sheltered 7,000 families in more than 1,000 hotels in 48 states and Puerto Rico at a cost of $100 million, the agency reported. It tried several times to end the program in recent months but a judge extended the deadline until Sept. 14. As recently as July, more than 400 families were still living in hotels in the Orlando-Kissimmee area. Non-governmental organization like the Hispanic Federation whittled that number down to 45 in the waning days of the program.
Other Puerto Rican families are living in temporary or makeshift quarters with relatives or friends. Even those who have found jobs and managed to get apartments deal with the hardships and challenges that come with being in the ranks of America’s working poor. Most, like Cardona, have landed jobs in Orlando’s booming hospitality economy — yet the jobs pay little more than minimum wage.
Like generations of newcomers before them, they arrived on the shores of the U.S. mainland, discouraged by the realities of life in their homeland, enticed by opportunity, and with a determination undaunted by hardship. But unlike other migrants, their arrival was triggered by a single, harrowing weather event — the kind of event that can be expected to unleash ever-larger migration around the world in the decades ahead. In this instance, it was a storm within the United States — not some distant tragedy on a Pacific or Indian Ocean shoreline. Hurricane Maria ripped away any illusions that Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory whose residents are U.S. citizens, can handle a weather disaster of Maria’s magnitude.
This was not the way Cardona, the housekeeper, expected her life to turn. She had completed nursing school in Santa Isabel on the southern coast of Puerto Rico a few weeks before Maria’s runoff washed away her home. She hadn’t gotten her nursing license yet, she said, so now, because of Maria, she finds herself making beds at a hotel in Orlando rather than performing nursing duties at a hospital in Puerto Rico.
“We can’t go back,” Cardona said. “We have nothing to go back to.”
It remains unclear how many Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland because of Maria. The migration surge the storm triggered comes against the backdrop of 12 years of recession and a steady flow of people from the island for economic reasons. The most credible estimate comes from Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which concluded in a March 2018 report that 135,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland in the months immediately following the hurricane.
Maria also exposed shortcomings in Washington. FEMA, for instance, faced numerous challenges in responding to a natural disaster on an island a thousand miles out to sea. The agency’s struggles in Puerto Rico stand in stark contrast to its performance last year when hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck Texas and Florida, respectively.
Perhaps nothing highlights the breakdown in the disaster response in Puerto Rico — and the failure to even comprehend its magnitude — more than the death toll. Initially, it was placed at 16. President Trump, during a post-Maria visit to San Juan, cavalierly tossed paper towels to people gathered at a church and tried to soothe Puerto Ricans by telling them they were lucky Maria wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed 1,833 people.
After Trump left, Puerto Rico revised its official death toll to 64 and left it there for the better part of a year even as academic and media reports estimated the death toll was in the thousands, including one from Harvard that put the death toll at 4,645. Eleven months after Maria, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, finally “accepted” the findings of a study by George Washington University and officially lifted the death toll from 64 to 2,975 — far more than Katrina killed.
It’s precisely the kind of denial that allowed Puerto Rico’s power grid to deteriorate to the point that it could be knocked out for so long, so completely by Maria. For Puerto Ricans, it revealed the harsh reality of decades of neglect to the electrical system. A year after Maria, some parts of the island are still dark. The fumbled disaster-recovery response has hardened the skepticism of many Puerto Ricans that the island government can dig its way out of the hole it finds itself in after Maria’s carnage. They’re also skeptical the territorial government can prepare for what many fear is coming due to climate change — continuing rising sea levels and even more extreme weather. That fear is likely to continue driving migration to the mainland, experts say.
“The post-Maria exodus is clearly the largest outflow of people in the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, added, “We should expect the massive exodus to continue.”
As climate change unfolds, Maria offers a clear example of how even a single weather event — let alone a relentless cascade of them all around the globe — can affect the human tide of history.
‘IT SOUNDED LIKE HELL WAS OUT THERE’
Just as the sun rose on Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into the southeastern corner of Puerto Rico near the city of Yabucoa Harbor. It had just been downgraded from a Category 5 but was still packing winds in excess of 145 mph. Over the next 14 hours, moving at 10 mph, Maria cut a diagonal swathe across the island ripping roofs off homes, flooding neighborhoods, destroying crops and demolishing most of the island’s vital infrastructure, including water, power and communications.
With up to 35 inches of rain falling on parts of Puerto Rico over the course of the day and night, it’s no wonder damage estimates reached $90 billion — a staggering hit for the economically struggling island.
Carlos Padin and Joanna Santiago rode out the storm with his 65-year-old mother in the couple’s home in the seaside city of Aguadilla, population 60,000, on the northwest corner of island. They tracked the storm on TV as it approached Puerto Rico, but just as the TV was reporting the storm had made landfall on the far side of the island about 6:15 a.m., their power went out. They turned on a transistor radio but, as the storm peaked later in the day, the radio cut off, too. They decided to see if the car radio worked. Locking arms to keep from being blown away, the three made their way to their car, but that radio wasn’t working either. So they returned to the house.
“It sounded like hell was out there,” Santiago recalled. Back inside, she started to panic. She drank Benadryl hoping it would put her to sleep. It didn’t.
The worst part, Padin said, was “that desperate moment during the hurricane when you didn’t know about your family or your friends. … Everything was moving in slow motion. It was an eternal night.”
Maria left them without power, water or any form of communication. They had no idea what was happening across the rest of Puerto Rico. As it turned out, their relatives all survived but many of their homes were flooded or otherwise badly damaged. More than 1,500 homes in Aguadilla lost their roofs.
In the days immediately after the storm, there was no sign of outside help. All services were out, including water, power and cell phone networks. Much of the roadway and many of the bridges were in a shambles. ATMs weren’t working, but even if you had money there was nothing you could buy with it. No stores or restaurants were open. Fresh water was unavailable. River water wasn’t safe to drink because of the presence of Leptospira — a genus of bacteria that can cause fever, chills and diarrhea initially and ultimately lead to kidney or liver failure, or meningitis. When Padin and Santiago did have the opportunity to buy a gallon of clean drinking water, the cost was exorbitant for them — $6. Meanwhile, they bathed and washed their clothes in a nearby stream believed to be contaminated with Leptospira, they said.
Santiago wanted to leave for the mainland immediately, but Padin thought they should stay. Things would get better, he believed. After six weeks, though, Padin changed his mind while watching neighbors who were still using glass jars to catch storm water flowing past their house. Things had gotten worse rather than better, he said. It was time to go.
They tried selling their belongings, but nobody had money. They ended up giving most of it away. Santiago had an unused airline ticket that she traded in for three one-way tickets to Miami. Santiago, Padin and his mother arrived in Miami with $50 in cash and whatever possessions they each could fit in a single suitcase.
Within a week, Santiago landed a hairdressing job at a Miami Beach salon. Staying with a relative, they lived off her tips until she got a paycheck. Padin now has a part-time job doing website work for his cousin, and they’re renting living space from him. Gradually, they’re putting together items for their new household as Padin looks for full-time work. They are cautiously optimistic about their new lives on the mainland.
Padin predicted that many Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland after Maria will stay. The island is still a wreck and it’s clear that both the territorial government and FEMA were badly overmatched, he said. The lesson for many Puerto Ricans, he added, is that the federal and state governments can help when disaster strikes on the mainland, where there are more resources and the infrastructure generally is more resilient. That’s not so on Puerto Rico.
In Florida, “it’s like a child being close to his parents,” Padin said. In Puerto Rico, “it’s like being an orphan.”
Wilfredo Morales, 65, was born in the South Bronx but moved to Puerto Rico in 1980. He lived in the city of Humacacoa, in Eastern Puerto Rico not far from where Maria made landfall. He was alone throughout the initial 8-hour ordeal.
As the wind blew outside his house and the air pressure went down, the doors rattled on their hinges and bowed outward. He tied them to one another across the room — doorknob to doorknob — with a yellow rope hoping they would fortify each other from blowing outward. The tin roof was pounding so violently he thought it had been ripped off. At the peak of the storm, he cowered alone in the blackness of his bathroom.
“Is this the end?” he wondered.
When he went outside after the hurricane had passed, Morales said he saw a tangle of fallen poles and dangling power lines up and down the street. Poles were lying across the street and leaning against homes. A neighbor’s 250-gallon water tank had toppled, spilling its contents. The canal that runs by his house was strewn with debris. His neighborhood looked like a bomb had gone off, he said. There was no water or power, no phone, no Internet. No TV or radio.
Neighbors with machetes worked to clear the streets. The lush, tropical landscape had been mangled and pulverized. Leaves were gone and grass had blown away or died. Over time, the traumatized environment turned a bleak, barren brown. He survived on his stockpile of cans of various soups and his favorite, pork and beans. He ate his meals directly from the can, cold, he said.
Thinking back, he couldn’t remember if it was a week or a month before he was able to reach his grown children in Orlando by phone and let them know he was alive. Before the hurricane, he had been a salesman for Liberty Cable. After the hurricane, he went into the office everyday and waited for them to have something for him to do. But he was a salesman, and there was nothing for a salesman to do with the cable and power systems down.
When the stores finally opened, he had to wait hours in line to buy a few things, he said. He couldn’t sleep. Dark thoughts filled his head during sleepless nights. He grew depressed. He felt lost. His children urged him to come to the mainland. He was torn. He wanted to stay and help. But there was nothing for him to do.
The tedium, depression and harsh conditions wore him down. Finally, in November, he flew to Orlando in the early morning hours. He was leaving behind a customer base built over decades of selling cable subscriptions. On the mainland, he expected to build from his experience. Gregarious, well spoken, bilingual and in seeming good health, he would seem to be a perfect candidate for jobs at cable companies near Orlando, where he applied for sales jobs. Without a bite in nearly a year, he continues applying.
He did snare a part-time job distributing cell phones under a federal program that provides them for people who can’t afford them. For each cell phone he distributes, he receives $8. He lives with an aunt and remains hopeful.
“I still feel lost,” he said.
In Orlando, he is with his family — four daughters, one son and seven grandchildren. But he misses the security and purpose that came with his job in Puerto Rico. Will he return? “I’m torn. I want to stay here because of my family, but I also miss the people I’ve known there for many years.”
For now, Morales is determined to stay in Orlando. It’s one thing for a young person like Cardona, but Morales is 65. Instead of retiring, he is struggling to rebuild his life from scratch.
‘YOU GET HERE WITH THE CLOTHES ON YOUR BACK’
As Hurricane Maria hurtled across Puerto Rico, Dayivet Valez, 16, and her family huddled in her grandmother’s cement block house in the Cordillera Central, the mountainous hearts of the island. They all lived in the town of Adjuntas, but the grandmother’s house was sturdier, so they chose to make their stand there. Valez was already feeling unwell before the storm arrived, so her mother medicated her to help her sleep through it. While she slept, the hurricane’s 145 mph winds and torrents of mountain runoff tore apart her bedroom at home, scattering her belongings forever. Her younger brother, who suffers from autism, screamed as the winds raged, she said.
Maria left their wooden home it tatters and infested with rats and ants. It was uninhabitable. So, with the help of FEMA, they moved to Kissimmee, where they took up residence at a Super 8 motel using temporary housing vouchers provided by FEMA.
The Super 8 is on Route 192, one of those commonplace strips lined with extended-stay hotels that cater to tourists and in whose shadow are rooms that provide inexpensive housing for the labor force supporting that tourism — in this case, the legion of employees at theme parks, hotels and restaurants. The area has a shortage of apartments. Landlords can be picky. So they require tenants to earn three times the amount of their monthly rent. The typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,000 a month, so a family would need to earn $3,000 a month to qualify. However, most of these workers make near-minimum wage and so earn less than half of what is needed. It requires many households to have the equivalent of three full-time jobs. Also, to move in, renters must save up three months of rent — first and last month and a deposit. That means saving $3,000 just to move into an apartment — if you can find one.
Already for many Kissimmee families, getting an apartment is an elusive dream. The newcomers are now in similar predicaments. For now, though, it appears Valez and her family will realize that dream, They will do so even though her father can’t work; when he was 16 he sustained a hip injury when a tractor he was driving overturned and tumbled down an embankment. Her mother, a teacher in Puerto Rico, works part time in Kissimmee as a substitute. Her younger brother, wrestling with autism, had access to special education programs at his public school. A year after Maria, they plan to move into a house in Kissimmee.
State Sen. Victor Torres, who represents the district surrounding the Super 8, battled in vain to get support from the state capital and Washington for the Maria refugees. A Democrat, he wrote letter after letter requesting help, he said. But Florida has a Republican governor and GOP legislature. Disaster relief — the kind that is needed well after a storm has past — can become partisan. Congress, too, is controlled by the GOP, which also controls the White House. Torres’ pleadings, he said, fell largely on deaf ears, likely because lawmakers, the governor and the president don’t have a real sense of what Maria victims are still going through.
“You get here with the clothes on your back,” he said. “You’re working a minimum-wage job. You’ve got four to five people living in one room. No kitchen.”
The communities around Kissimmee are already under stress because of a lack of affordable housing, education funds and health care services, he said. “So when the evacuees came from Puerto Rico, that sets up a burden on our local cities and counties,” he added. “And with no affordable housing in sight, how are we going to help these families?”
The Puerto Ricans forced to move to the mainland arrived in time for this fall’s midterm elections, where they could impact congressional races across the country. But their potential impact is being watched most closely here in Florida, with its very tight U.S. Senate and gubernatorial race. Florida has some House seats in play, too. Both the U.S. House and Senate are up for grabs, with the potential to reshape the balance of power in Washington at a time of deep political divisions. In most states, control of the statehouse is crucial to determining which party will benefit when political boundaries are redrawn for the 2020s, affecting control across the country for a decade.
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, but they can’t vote in presidential general elections and they have no voting representative in Congress. However, if they move to the mainland, they enjoy the full rights of citizenship — including voting in presidential and congressional races. Technically, Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952 — seven years before Alaska and Hawaii became states.
Maribel Gomez Cordero is a family therapist and program coordinator for Proyecto CASA, a nonprofit that helps Maria families get on their feet after they arrive in Central Florida. As recently as July, she and two case workers were handling 400 families living in 38 extended-stay hotels in Orlando and Kissimmee. As of last week, she and others working with the nonprofit Hispanic Federation had whittled that number down to 45 by helping the others find homes.
Child survivors of Maria in Florida have shown high levels of depression and anxiety, Gomez said, citing a high incidence of what she called adjustment disorder — a stress reaction caused by the compounded traumas of the hurricane, its grim aftermath and then the sudden relocation to Florida. The children, in most cases, left behind friends, pets or relatives. They were thrust into a new school with the academic year already under way. Some didn’t speak English.
“Their anxiety went up like crazy,” she said.
COMING TO AMERICA CLUB
Manny Hernandez, a language arts teacher at Osceola High School, is a man on a mission. He wants to teach students new to America how to succeed in America. In fact, he said he moved from Puerto Rico to Kissimmee four years ago precisely to position himself in front of the flow of students coming to Kissimmee from Puerto Rico — and, as it turned out, all over the world. Kissimmee has become an immigration landing mat for people from across the Americas, including Venezuela and Cuba.
When Hernandez arrived four years ago, he and his family endured a similar challenging transition; they lived for several months in an extended stay hotel. Even with a master’s degree and 30 years of teaching experience, it took four months for him to get his family into an apartment.
Hurricane Maria changed the landscape at Osceola High School, Hernandez said. With classrooms already overcrowded, 300 new students from Puerto Rico enrolled in the immediate aftermath of the storm. They kept arriving on a daily basis all the way through spring.
“Tensions among the faculty skyrocketed because their classrooms became smaller and their workload increased dramatically,” he said.
When Valez, the 16-year-old who survived Maria in Adjuntas, enrolled last year at the high school, Hernandez invited her to join his “Coming to America Club.”
Students in the club wrote autobiographical essays that were published as a book titled, “Coming to America.”
In her essay, Valez describes the tearful goodbyes and uncertain arrival.
“We got on the airplane and took the last look at our island,” she writes. “When we got to Orlando, one of my father’s cousins was waiting for us. He drove us to the Super 8 Hotel in Kissimmee.”
Now, after almost a year at the Super 8, she has had her own tale of coming to the mainland published in a book. She’s cruising through her senior year of high school as she looks toward college. And, soon, she and her family will realize the fulfillment of their hard-fought post-Maria dream: to have a home again.
Hovering over that dream, however, is a stark reality: They still live in a hurricane corridor.
Published September 19, 2018
Written By: Marcus Stern