A Great Migration From Puerto Rico Is Set to Transform Orlando

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A report by Lizette Alvarez for the New York Times.

Ten intolerable days after Hurricane Maria trounced Puerto Rico, Sahria Garcia finally got a call from her brother on the island. The call lasted three minutes and the news shook her: Her family had lost everything — jobs, houses, possessions, cars — and had spent days foraging for food, ice and water.

Ms. Garcia, who lives in a small Orlando apartment with her three children, did not hesitate: “Don’t even ask,” Ms. Garcia said she told her brother during their conversation. “This is your house.”

Last week, they arrived — two brothers, their wives and their four children — and plopped onto newly bought bunk beds. The family is one small part of a sudden exodus of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans racing to Florida after Hurricane Maria, a migration so large it rivals those from New Orleans to Houston after Hurricane Katrina and from Cuba to Miami during the Mariel boatlift.

The scale is larger than any previous movement of Puerto Ricans to the mainland, including the wave that arrived after World War II, said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University and an expert on Puerto Rican migration. “It’s a stampede.”

More than 168,000 people have flown or sailed out of Puerto Rico to Florida since the hurricane, landing at airports in Orlando, Miami and Tampa, and the port in Fort Lauderdale. Nearly half are arriving in Orlando, where they are tapping their networks of family and friends. An additional 100,000 are booked on flights to Orlando through Dec. 31, county officials said. Large numbers are also settling in the Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach areas.

With so many arriving so abruptly, the migration is expected to transform Orlando, a city that has already become a stronghold of Puerto Ricans, many of them fleeing the island’s economic crisis in recent years. The Puerto Rican population of Orlando has exploded from 479,000 in 2000 to well over one million this year, according to the Pew Research Center. The impact of this latest wave is likely to stretch from schools and housing to the work force and even politics. Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens and tilt Democratic, could sway the electoral results of one of the country’s most pivotal swing states.

Local officials and nonprofit groups are already concerned about a scarcity of affordable rental housing in the area, a longtime problem with no quick fix.

They are also worried about the eventual strain on schools, which will need more bilingual teachers to handle a large number of mostly Spanish-speaking students. The area’s two county school districts — Orange and Osceola — have taken in 3,280 new Puerto Rican students since the hurricane, 70 percent of the Florida total, according to district officials.

So far, the Orange County Public Schools district has hired 20 teachers from Puerto Rico, and 10 more are close to being hired, said Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent.

The local governments will also have to help a steady flow of elderly Puerto Ricans and special needs children whose care and predictable routines were upended.

“We’re one of the fastest-growing regions in the country,” Mayor Teresa Jacobs of Orange County, where Orlando is, said at a recent meeting of state, local and nonprofit officials. “We’ve been handling growth. We just can’t handle it in a matter of weeks.”

From the start, the welcome extended to the evacuees by state and local governments has been generous. In early October, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to help the state provide services, obtain federal money and streamline rules for things like school enrollment.

The governor, a Republican and a likely candidate in 2018 for the United States Senate, also established disaster relief centers at the airports in Orlando and Miami so that Puerto Ricans could quickly obtain information about benefits, transportation, jobs, schools and medical care.

The transition has been eased in other ways. Most islanders have moved in with relatives, and many have no plans to return home, Puerto Rican leaders said.

“If I have to start from zero from somewhere, then I would rather do it here than in Puerto Rico,” said Yasmeli Santiago, 28, one of the sisters-in-law who moved in with Ms. Garcia last week.

But as days and weeks of living with relatives slide into months, frustration over privacy and food costs could easily escalate. Ms. Garcia, who works nights as a cashier at a hotel and moved here three months ago from Boston, will have eight relatives, including a baby, living with her and her three children in a two-bedroom apartment.

Before her relatives arrived, Ms. Garcia, who bought their plane tickets, figured out the living arrangements. She gave up her bed so the two couples could trade off sleeping in her room. The children all pile onto a foldout bed and two bunk beds. The rest, including her, sleep on air mattresses in the living room.

The women will share cooking duties, and while food stamps have been slow in coming, the family has picked up groceries at food pantries. Finding jobs is a priority. Fortunately, the job market is relatively healthy in the Orlando area, where the unemployment rate is 3.2 percent, compared with 4.1 percent in the country over all.

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“I am ready for this,” Ms. Garcia said of the jumble of people in her home. “I think we are O.K.”

Others are not as fortunate as Ms. Garcia’s relatives. More than 1,100 Puerto Ricans were staying in Florida hotels as of Nov. 14. But with peak tourist season fast approaching — Orlando gets 68 million visitors a year — rates are climbing, and the new arrivals will soon have to find more permanent places to stay.

“If they are not finding a house, or hotel, or need to find some independent living, we need to make sure we don’t have a crisis situation,” said Ms. Jacobs, the Orange County mayor. “The situation could deteriorate quickly.”

But so far, no plan has emerged.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will not bring in mobile trailers, said Daniel Llargues, a spokesman, something it did on a small scale in Florida after Hurricane Irma. The agency also provides rental assistance. Beyond that, long-term housing is a local issue. The situation is so dire that at a recent round table there was talk of buying an abandoned motel to house people.

Representative Darren Soto, an Orlando congressman of Puerto Rican descent, said new apartment rental units are being built at a brisk pace. But there are not enough, and only some will offer low rents. Until more units are ready, he said, “we will have to be vigilant to make sure no one falls off their housing.”

Some Puerto Rican community leaders are encouraging the newcomers to head north to New York or Philadelphia, where state benefits are more robust and there are fewer new arrivals.

“The reality is these families are here, and we put out the welcome mat, so now it is our responsibility that their transitions are seamless,” said Marucci Guzmán, the executive director of Latino Leadership, a grass-roots group in Orlando that has helped hundreds of newly arrived Puerto Ricans. “This is not the land of Mickey Mouse, and the streets aren’t paved with gold.”

Even for those who have found a safe place to land, the heartbreak of leaving the island remains.

As her three children played in the living room of her sister-in-law’s apartment, Ms. Santiago said the last two months had been excruciating. Her rental house in Humacao, a badly hit municipality near where the hurricane made landfall, was inundated with thigh-high water. A house she was building was also wrecked, taking her investment along with it. She lost her job at a hotel that still has not reopened and her husband, who worked at a luxury hotel, El Conquistador, could not wait the months that it would take to reopen.

“Outside the house,” she said, “the water was to my neck.

“We lost everything.”

But now there are new losses to endure, she said. Her mother and her two teenage brothers had to stay behind.

“My mom stayed alone with my brothers,” Ms. Santiago said. “They lost their roof, their doors. They lost everything, too. I am filled with worry now about the fact they stayed, and so it’s very difficult.”

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