From Puerto Rico to Central Florida: Environmental Disaster and Circular Migration
(Published May 2021 as part of the Environmental Justice Media Intensive)
When Krizia López Arce awoke on a September morning three-and-a-half years ago, her hometown of Ponce looked like a shell of itself. Where billboards once greeted residents and visitors in the southern Puerto Rican city where López Arce grew up, the sky was bare.
“I remember me thinking, ‘Wow, this is not normal,’” she said.
At its peak, the storm sustained 155 mph winds. “Something is happening with the environment, with the climate, that is affecting us more now,” López Arce said.
In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in rapid succession. López Arce recalled the chaos. At the time, she instinctively drove to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where her family lived. On both sides of the highway, she saw houses she had never seen before. Wind had unearthed trees that usually hid them.
For decades, Puerto Ricans like López Arce have migrated to the U.S. mainland for jobs, college, to raise children and to join family and friends. Those who leave the island often return to it. Patterns of “ circular migration “ are common.
As climate change progresses, how can government officials, nonprofit organizations and communities support displaced people in U.S. cities? And what do people in migrating communities need in order to find long-term comfort and stability?
A History of Displacement
Migration from Puerto Rico was on the rise through the 2010s, as Puerto Rico faced a disastrous debt crisis, precipitated by withdrawal of private investment.
María Torres-López is a Puerto Rican community organizer in Palm Beach, Florida, who founded Diáspora en Resistencia in response. Originally from San Juan, Torres-López emphasized that decades of colonialism preceded Hurricane Maria’s destruction.
Trade restrictions, a prohibition on discharging debt in bankruptcy and the mass flight of industry in the early 2000s set Puerto Rico up for precipitous economic decline. Given the peculiarities of Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. colony, the people there lack “the freedom to release themselves out of the cycle of poverty,” Torres-López said. Many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the mainland as a result.
But the wave of outmigration in 2017 differed. Flight was massive, sudden. The economic impact on storm survivors was — in some cases — devastating, with many people losing their homes, jobs and possessions.
Hurricane Maria survivor López Arce considers herself a climate refugee: a person displaced from her home due to environmental disaster. Currently, she lives in Orlando, where she’s found comfort and purpose in community with other Hispanic and Latinx people impacted by environmental injustice.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 2010 and 2019, Puerto Rico’s population fell more than 14%. Early models projected that up to 213,000 Puerto Ricans would leave the island annually after Maria. Of those who did migrate, many chose to move to the Orlando and Kissimmee areas.
As climate change progresses, hurricanes will become more destructive — which means more lives may be upended. When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September 2019, some meteorologists suggested creating a Category 6 for these storms that continue to get more powerful.
And yet, more than three years after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, many survivors on and off the island have rebuilt their lives — with or without adequate government support.
Life in the Diaspora
For the Puerto Rican diaspora, the reality is complicated: Puerto Ricans are citizens of the country that is occupying their homeland. The U.S. president ostensibly represents them, but they can’t vote in the general election.
But Puerto Rican and mainland U.S. communities may increasingly face shared challenges. Scientists predict storms will become more dangerous as temperatures rise due to extreme rainfall, increased storm surge and wind speeds and rapid intensification, which sometimes occurs before storms make landfall.
As a warming Caribbean island, Puerto Rico remains vulnerable to environmental disasters. And just as Puerto Ricans migrate to the continental U.S., some Florida Keys residents may also need to relocate: Florida itself faces climate and coastal vulnerabilities.
So, even as the Sunshine State welcomes, includes and prioritizes (some) Puerto Rican people, migration to Florida may not be a viable long-term solution.
Helping Each Other
“Everything about disasters is injustice manifesting,” Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said on the podcast “Ologies.”
Hurricanes and other environmental disasters reveal and worsen existing social inequalities. As Montano explained, storms tend to burden already-vulnerable communities by shaping “who is affected most directly by disasters, which communities are affected, [and] in what ways they’re affected.” Often, people of color and people who experience economic instability bear these strains.
However, Latinx professionals in Central Florida sprang to action in the wake of Hurricane Maria. City agencies provided translation services for many Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican people who chose to make a home in Orlando, where one out of every three residents identifies as Latinx or Hispanic.
Ana Cruz directs Orlando’s Hispanic Office of Local Assistance, also known as “HOLA” — a name that befits her warm welcome. She knows what it’s like to migrate to the mainland after a disaster on the island. In 1989, she spent a week without power after Category 5 Hurricane Hugo hit her hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico.
“I thought I would die for a piece of ice, to drink something cold,” Cruz said.
Now, when migrant communities arrive in the Orlando area, Cruz is there to help them find resources. According to Cruz, the post-Hugo power outages were brief compared to what Puerto Rican people faced following Hurricane Maria.
Cruz says that some families arrived at the airport with no possessions. Some evacuees could not settle in Orlando at all after being stuck in hotels without affordable housing and jobs for up to a year. Orlando’s capacity for affordable housing remains very low.
“It was horrible,” she said. “People started crying [at the airport]. Their mental health, it was in real bad shape. I remember a lady sitting down, and all they were saying is, ‘You don’t have an idea,’ describing that it was hell, that the devil came down.”
People in distress called Cruz from the island. A family of 12 from Las Piedras — one that eventually migrated to Central Florida — is engraved in her mind: “My phone rang…. And it was this lady who drove across two towns to a mountain to get [a] connection to call me because someone told her about the HOLA office.”
In late September of 2017, all cell towers were down in Las Piedras. It took nearly a year for utilities to be restored in some places. But some Florida officials prioritized making the transition smoother for Puerto Rican people.
A Warm Welcome
Cruz’s was one of the first faces that evacuees saw when they disembarked from emergency flights and cruises off the island after Maria. Former Gov. Rick Scott had directed the city of Orlando to open a welcome center in Orlando International Airport, known as the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC).
Representatives from federal, local, state and community organizations set up stations at the center, connecting evacuees with services and providing information. Some, like HOLA, were able to provide comprehensive services in Spanish.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, National Institutes of Health professionals leapt in as volunteers and co-creators of an emergency health preparedness plan. NIH professionals also provided mental health and behavioral support. Community members started their own Centers for Mutual Aid.
Psychiatrist Susan Borja told an NIH publication that people frequently asked her, “‘How was it really in Puerto Rico?’”
She said, “A year after the hurricane, power was mostly restored — except where it wasn’t. Even in San Juan, hotels and lovely tourist beaches sit next to homes and schools with no roof. The island is a mix of beautiful, destroyed, historic, abandoned and rehabilitated. It has a long way to go before recovery is full and sustained.”
Nevertheless, some Puerto Rican people accepted vouchers for plane tickets to return to Puerto Rico when faced with the choice to either stay and face homelessness in Florida or return to still-damaged or destroyed homes.
A Second Puerto Rico
In recent years, Florida has overtaken New York as the most popular home for diasporic Puerto Ricans. The warm population, large Puerto Rican community and tourist industry are a significant draw. And while many express optimism about making lives there, a University of Central Florida professor expressed caution about the presumed higher quality of life on the mainland.
Fernando Rivera, sociology professor and director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub, said that sometimes people have “heightened expectations on the island of what life really is in the United States.”
Some Puerto Ricans in Central Florida have settled down in the years since they fled Maria, purchasing homes, opening businesses. Charlene Oliveras, whose home near San Juan was badly damaged after the 2017 hurricanes, often thinks about what she and her family went through. Oliveras said she visited her sister that October and secured an apartment in Orlando.
By December, Oliveras and her husband Ramiro Hernández touched down in Orlando and headed to their new Central Florida home. “In Puerto Rico it was so hard,” she said. “No electricity, no food, no gas, it was a disaster.”
Cruz, the HOLA director, said that many Puerto Rican people she met at the welcome center had nowhere to stay. Secure and adequate housing put Oliveras and her husband in a better position than many others. But they still needed to find jobs. At the Welcome Center, Oliveras connected with CareerSource Florida, a move that helped land her employment with a local Hispanic counseling provider.
Navigating the Red Tape
Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant layoffs for Oliveras and Hernández, the Central Florida business community helped smooth out some rough edges. The couple contacted Prospera, a program for Hispanic entrepreneurs.
Business people from the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida helped Oliveras navigate the process of filing necessary forms and completing training to start a family business. A few months into the pandemic, she and Hernández opened a car dealership.
Local government and bureaucracy in Florida differ greatly from the inner workings of Puerto Rico, said Luis Martinez, Orlando’s deputy manager of Multicultural Affairs and International Relations.
Martinez said he foresees great potential for Puerto Rican-owned small businesses. He expects business ownership and electoral successes to help the Puerto Rican community continue to build wealth and power in Central Florida.
As a city, Orlando did a lot of things right, according to Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute — a Washington D.C.-based think tank. But he added, “We don’t know yet whether the welcome has been longer term.” He argued that cities must evaluate how they can satisfy the needs of their current residents in addition to any future migrants.
Cities “should start thinking about building more affordable housing, thinking about their future energy, water and food supply chains and developing a diversified economic base,” Martín said.
From a practical standpoint, climate migrants’ ability to establish a long-term future in Orlando is correlated with their financial situation prior to the hurricanes. In 2017, about 45% of Puerto Ricans on the island lived in poverty, nearly four times the average poverty rate of the mainland U.S. That number has fallen only slightly since. Meanwhile, a series of earthquakes in 2019–20 set recovery back further in southwest Puerto Rico.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also raised more questions about Orlando’s ability to sustain those who migrated after Maria. Some migrants never expected to secure the resources to remain in the area long term. Others who had previously planned to settle in Orlando decided to return to Puerto Rico in the wake of COVID’s devastation and related mass layoffs in the hospitality industry.
During COVID-19, HOLA’s physical office was forced to close, but Cruz said she receives more calls than ever before. She said she keeps boxes of food in her home and personally delivers them to community members in need.
“It’s a bit challenging, but I have this phone,” she said. “I have three lines from the office here. So, people, when they call any of those lines — that goes through here.”
Cruz reported that around half of the people she knows who migrated after Maria have returned to the island, especially since the pandemic struck. She keeps in touch with many of them; she said they’ve become like family. Meanwhile, the population of Puerto Ricans in metro Orlando has returned to pre-Maria levels as migrants relocated to Osceola County, Florida, or moved back to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans’ migration patterns underscore a need for environmental justice — a more equitable balance of environmental benefits and burdens. As seen in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, many Puerto Ricans are people of color who live with routine income inequality and governmental delays. When disaster strikes, they need timely assistance.
“The boundaries are sometimes hard to establish, in terms of what is a Puerto Rico issue, what is a Central Florida issue [and] what is a Florida issue, because they’re interconnected,” said Rivera, the director of UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub.
Rivera believes the Orlando Office of Sustainability and Resilience heard these community concerns and responded by adding housing for climate migrants as a priority in its 2018 Community Action Plan.
“We have this term ‘natural disaster’ that we use all the time, but really disasters aren’t natural,” Montano said on the “Ologies” podcast.
All of these experienced effects — whether environmental, economic or social — are partially rooted in how the U.S. political engine works. As Montano theorized, “They’re caused by decisions that we make, and how we build, and where we live and the policies that we have that are driving these things.” Any solutions must address the full context, both in Florida and in Puerto Rico.
Torres-López of Diaspora en Resistencia works with like-minded advocates for policies that empower Puerto Rican people to rebuild their own resources and power. For them, this means debt cancellation and Puerto Rican self-determination. She said she hopes that Puerto Rico will become a place that offers prosperity for Puerto Ricans who want to return home to the Caribbean.
Today, López Arce has started her dream job as communications manager at Chispa Florida, an offshoot of the League of Conservation Voters that serves Spanish-speaking communities. In her role, she seeks to educate people in the Latinx community about climate change and environmental justice. Chispa backs legislation that impacts the community, fights against utility shut-offs and advocates for lower-emissions school buses.
In her activist practice, López Arce also shares hope for a better and more just future — like the one she found shortly after Maria, when she walked through the Welcome Center. Remembering all the booths set up to receive the survivors, she said, “For me that was like, ‘OK, at least not everything is lost.’ And that’s something, right?”
Imani J. Jackson contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story was written as a part of the University of Florida Environmental Justice Media Intensive, hosted by the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute and the UF Levin College of Law’s Public Interest Environmental Conference.