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Puerto Rico Exiled in Florida: the Puerto Ricans struggling to build a new life off island

For the more than 300,000 people who fled after Hurricane Maria the Sunshine State proved to be no Disney World but they are poised to have an electoral impact in the midterms

By Richard Luscombe in Kissimmee FL | The Guardian | August 9, 2018


Huddled with her family listening to Hurricane Maria’s 115mph winds tearing apart their residential community in Caguas, Claudia Sofía Báez’s 18th birthday was not the coming of age celebration she had anticipated. When the deadly winds and rain subsided and it was finally safe to leave their storm-battered house, a scene of complete devastation greeted them.

“It looked like a bomb had fallen,” Báez said. “It was pure destruction, the town was destroyed. I couldn’t recognise it. Absolutely nothing was the same.”

Faced with months of no electricity, running water or gasoline, and six-hour lines at the supermarket for even the most basic supplies, the Báez family made the only decision they could: sending Claudia, her then 14-year-old brother Esteban, and 73-year-old grandmother Gladys to start anew in Florida, joining hundreds of thousands of other Puerto Ricans fleeing the aftermath of the worst natural disaster ever to hit the US territory.

“During those times of crisis we saw hope in coming here,” said Báez, who was forced to abandon her higher education at the University of Puerto Ricoand is now enrolled at Orlando’s Valencia College studying psychology.

With her father Héctor, a Puerto Rican government worker, and mother Sonia, a real estate insurance agent, required to stay behind, Báez grew up quickly as the new head of her household in an unfamiliar country. No cellular phone signals on the island meant it was often impossible to talk to her parents, and only in May was the family reunited in Orlando after almost eight months apart.

Wreckage left by Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people.

Wreckage left be Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017 and is probably responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

“It was a trauma,” she said. “Even the plane ride was difficult. The majority of the people were there for the same reasons we were and you could hear people talking about their experiences during the hurricane, where they were going, how they had to also leave everything behind.

“You could hear people crying in all parts of the plane and none of those things helped in the process of leaving. We didn’t have time to say goodbye to friends or family members. The biggest challenge has been starting over, no friends, nothing. This is a new country, nothing like Puerto Rico.”

The Báezes realise they were among the lucky ones. A cousin took them into a tiny apartment and with time – and her parents’ wages – they were fortunate to find a rental apartment of their own.

But the challenges they faced are typical of those that still confront many who came to the US mainland in the wake of the storm, arriving shocked and bewildered and in many cases possessing only the clothes they stood up in.

While some headed for Pennsylvania, New York and other areas with a sizeable Puerto Rican community, the vast majority, more than 300,000 by some estimates, arrived at airports and cruise terminals in Florida. They quickly found that it was no Disney World, despite the best efforts of charities, aid agencies and Orlando’s Hispanic Office of Local Assistance, which provided advice and resources on everything from housing and healthcare to employment and education.

As of the end of June, more than 600 Puerto Rican families were still living in cramped, single-room accommodation in Florida hotels, two-thirds of them in central Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties and relying on the temporary shelter assistance program paid for by the federal emergency management agency (Fema).

And with the Orlando/Kissimmee/Sanford area third in the US for its dearth of affordable housing options, low-cost rentals are especially hard to come by, forcing even more to remain in $60-a-night hotel rooms in rundown areas, especially along the US 192 highway in Kissimmee.

“It’s been really a tragedy and it didn’t have to be that way,” said Darren Soto, the first US congressman of Puerto Rican descent elected in Florida, who blames the ongoing crisis on the White House. Soto, a Democrat, says Donald Trump continually refused to sanction for Puerto Rican evacuees the same federal disaster assistance programme that provided rent subsidies to thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005 and enabled them to escape the misery of budget hotel living. Additionally, the Fema aid for temporary housing is set to end on 23 July.

“They could have approved the programme and allowed these folks to rent apartments or houses, but the Trump administration refused four requests to do so,” he said.

Congressman Darren Soto and staff work out of a lobby in a Florida Super 8 motel to update families and other area hotels on a new extension granting Puerto Rican evacuees three more days of federal housing assistance in Kissimmee Florida, on 1 July 2018.

Congressman Darren Soto and staff reach out to Puerto Rican evacuees in a lobby in a Florida Super 8 Motel in Kissimmee, Florida, earlier this month.   Photograph: Staff/Reuters

“It’s tragic and disheartening because we’re fighting every day for them and we don’t have a willing partner and a funded recovery to help as much as we are asking for. These evacuees are traditionally working-class folks struggling to get a $4-5,000 deposit together. That’s why we’re working on trying to get more rental assistance.”

Almost 10 months after the hurricane hit their homeland, up to 60,000 evacuees remain in Florida, according to the American Community Survey, a number Soto believes would be lower but for “underfunded” recovery efforts on the island.

“It’s a $90bn disaster funded with only $18.9bn, so we’re seeing the stories of that short-funded recovery every day,” he said. Evacuees in central Florida fill generally lower-paying tourism and agricultural jobs yet still feel their prospects are better here than at home.

Soto sees the potential for Puerto Ricans in Florida, all US citizens, to send a powerful message to the Trump administration in November’s midterms. A new state governor will be elected to replace the Republican Rick Scott, who will challenge for Democrat Bill Nelson’s seat in the US Senate. Both races are knife-edge in a state Trump won by only 113,000 votes in 2016.

“The real reason you have Scott and Nelson fighting each other over the Puerto Rican vote is that there’s already 1.3 million of us here, and potentially another 50-60,000 evacuees very engaged in central Florida politics,” he said.

“We’re a giant voting bloc and a powerful force motivated by the mistreatment of these evacuees, the underfunding of the island and the disrespect Trump has shown to our community.”

Among those new voters is Báez, who attended Trump’s January State of the Union address in Washington as Soto’s guest and was elected president of Valencia’s student government association this spring. Her studies this autumn will intermingle with fundraising events for evacuees and voter registration drives.

“Just because we’re going to stay doesn’t mean we have to turn our backs on Puerto Rico. We’re still supporting, we’re very attentive and we’ll do all we can to help,” she said.

“There are so many of us. Now we’re here and can vote, maybe we can change something. Puerto Ricans are doing their best to get back up, we’re strong, but we needed help and still do. The work is not yet done.”

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