Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Oct 2 – Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico looks likely to trigger a major wave of migration to Florida, which could push the politically important US state to the Democratic side, analysts said Sunday.
That’s how it look for Franchesca Rivera, a 32-year-old schoolteacher who teaches in Aibonito, a town in the center of Puerto Rico that has been destroyed by the hurricane.
“If I do not start classes, I need income. So I’m going to go first with the kids and then my husband. If classes do not start, I’ll leave in a month,” says Rivera, whose house was among the few standing after the megastorm.
Her three and seven year old sons run around amid what were the chicken farms and Easter flower farms key to Aibonito’s economy. They were wiped off the map by Maria.
She herself lost $ 80,000 in flowers, her husband’s business.
“We lost everything. And since it was the first year, we did not have insurance coverage, we had 7,000 baskets of flowers,” she told AFP.
“Who’s going to buy an Easter flower at Christmas if we’re in so much need,” he says.
She plans to go to Tampa, in central Florida, where she has family. And she does not know if she will come back — certainly not in the short term.
That’s the case for many Puerto Ricans who have family or friends and a place to stay on the US mainland. After New York City, central Florida cities such as Orlando — with its thousands of theme park jobs — Tampa and St Petersburg are among the biggest draws.
Yet in balmy Florida, Puerto Ricans feel a bit more on their home turf.
Many from the Caribbean island of 3.4 million fault Donald Trump for responding too slowly to the catastrophe.
Trump denies the claims and says local leaders mismanaged and politicized the situation.
“He needs to come down here, see how this is,” 57-year-old Aida Rosario said on her way out of mass. “He needs to see for himself, with his own two eyes, what we are going through.”
Conditions on the island are so difficult that those who can leave, leave.
“Everyone is trying to get out. Everyone: middle class, upper class, lower class, everyone, either for a short time or for good,” says Professor Astrid Arraras, from the Department of International Relations and Politics at Florida International University (FIU).
“The Puerto Ricans of this crisis diaspora are bringing their parents,” says the expert.
– The political impact –
“It’s going to be very widespread,” adds Jorge Duany, an anthropologist specializing in migration at FIU.
“It is not clear if they are people who are going to stay permanently. But it is quite clear that there will be an even greater exodus because of the hurricane.”
Puerto Rico is a US territory. Though Puerto Ricans are US citizens with US passports, they can only vote in presidential primaries.
If they live on the island, they cannot vote in US presidential elections. If they are living on the mainland, they can register to vote including for president, in whichever state they live.
Of the five million Puerto Ricans living in the United States mainland according to US Census figures for 2015, one million reside in Florida.
Most have come since 2006 because of the financial crisis on the island, which went bankrupt with a $ 74 billion debt.
And the Puerto Ricans, traditionally Democrats, will be arriving en masse to a state that gave the presidency to the Republican Trump.
“Definitely an influx of Puerto Ricans could have a political impact in Florida,” in that regard, says Duany.
“And I think they could have an economic impact also in terms of businesses and businesses that have been created here,” he adds.
The new exodus will have a cultural impact, too. They may be Americans, but Puerto Ricans are Hispanic, salsa-dancing, Caribbean, Spanish-speaking and family-oriented.
For a long time, northern Florida leaned rural, conservative and white. Now it is likely to help Florida become more Hispanic, and lean more Democratic.
“Although some are bilingual, they maintain their Latino culture and all this will reinforce Florida’s Latinization,” says the expert.