“Climate Refugee Stories: Puerto Rico”
Produced and edited by Emma Crow-Willard
Stories from Hurricane Maria
by Emma Crow-Willard
In May of 2019, I headed to Puerto Rico for the second time. I had been there for one week in August of 2018 to explore what stories needed to be told that hadn’t. Post-Hurricane Maria, I naively thought, not having been to Puerto Rico: “Shouldn’t everyone leave? It’s in the path of hurricanes that are just going to get worse and it’s susceptible to rising sea levels.” But when I arrived, I realized just how big the main island is (Puerto Rico is actually multiple islands). It is also an island of mountains, with its highest point reaching 4,390 feet. Most of the island would not be impacted by rising sea levels. A really bad hurricane only occurs once every twenty years or so, and the cost of living cannot be beat—it’s far cheaper than any of the states. Plus, it’s got the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System, beautiful weather and beaches, fresh mangoes falling from the trees, and everyone is so friendly. It kind of made me want to live there, too.
However, Puerto Rico has major problems stemming from its history as a colonized nation, which proved especially catastrophic when disaster hit. Rather than go into that history here, I recommend Jesse Martinez and Marc D. Joffe’s Origins of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Crisis and Amelia Cheatham’s Puerto Rico: A U.S. Territory in Crisis. Here, I instead share some of the stories I heard. First, a few brief notes on why this background reading is important. The United States’ policies have caused Puerto Rico to become debt-dependent, which has led to an economic crisis and massive migration from the island. This migration has a cyclical effect of inciting more migration from the island, because it reduces the workforce, taxpayers, and, notably, well-educated young professionals, thus reducing funds for public services such as education, keeping up the electrical grid, etc., all of which ultimately reduces the quality of life.
Victor, a PhD student from Aguada studying at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, decided to transfer to Arizona State University when, after Hurricane Maria, his program basically disappeared. He said (translated): “It is important to realize that the Hurricane (Maria) wasn’t the precise problem. It’s a political problem, an economic problem.” There is a great deal of distrust of the government on the island. Immediately after Hurricane Maria, the entire island’s power was knocked out because of poor management of the centralized grid. Yet many residents were still charged for power use during the time they were not supplied electricity, said two University of Puerto Rico professors I interviewed.
Luis, a nursing student in Puerto Rico, graduated just before the hurricane and was forced to leave the island to find work. He now works as a nurse in Colorado, where he chose to move because he had family there. Based on many of the interviews I conducted, job security is very hard to find on the island, because most positions are only offered as one-year contract jobs as opposed to salaried positions. Most people who do migrate move somewhere where they have friends or relatives. There are varying perspectives in Puerto Rico on migration, just like there are varying perspectives on whether Puerto Rico should become a state, or an independent country (of note: no one I spoke with thought Puerto Rico was good in its current political limbo—neither a state nor independent). Some believe if you leave, you are privileged, because you can afford to leave. Others believe if you stay you are privileged because you can afford to stay. Today, the majority of Puerto Ricans now live on the US mainland, predominantly in New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Emma Crow-Willard, M.A., is a managing producer at Climate Now.