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One crisis too many: Puerto Ricans ponder abandoning the island after Maria

Without electricity, water, or communications, some Puerto Ricans are considering joining the diaspora. They survived the island's long-running economic crisis, but Maria is too much. In the last three days more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida.
Families getting ready to leave Puerto Rico on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Crédito: Alvin Baez/Reuters

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - In the midst of a long running economic crisis, Mayra Montes and her husband Jorge Reyes had resisted leaving the island. That is until Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in the dark and incomunicado and its residents sunk in the uncertainty of how long it will take to return to normal.

"My daughter told me, 'Mommy, I want you to leave the country as soon as possible,'" Mayra said with her grandson in her arms as she waited to get on a private plane that would take her, her husband, daughter and grandson to Austin, Texas. There she hoped to meet with another daughter, an engineer, who moved to Texas a year and a half ago in search of work, which was proving hard to find in the island.

In the last three days alone, more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida, according to state officials who say they are expecting 100,000 in the coming weeks. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency this week to help provide services, including setting up relief centers and virtual schooling for 20,000 students.

Families like the Reyes, who work in the health sector, had managed to cope with the deterioration of the economy and the quality of life in this American territory. However "we realize this hurricane will take years to recover from. We're getting a little too old to hang on and keep struggling here," acknowledged Jorge Reyes, who owns a pharmacy in Bayamón, a suburb of the capital San Juan, sitting next to his suitcases at a private airline terminal used by many people leaving the island in the wake of Maria.

"There is no electricity, there is no gas ... I made a line for four and a half hours, and when it was my turn there as no more gas left. The infrastructure of Puerto Rico was bad and now it is worse," added his wife.

Puerto Rico could empty out

The storm threatens to become a tough blow for an island that has already lost about 445,000 Puerto Ricans since 2006, according to official figures. In 2015 alone, the most recent year for which data is available, 89,000 left for the United States, mainly Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania. They have gone in search of better wages while the financial reins of the island have been put in the hands of a board of fiscal control that has recommended tougher measures to put the economy back on track.

At the Jet Aviation air terminal, alongside Luis Munoz Marín International Airport in the town of Carolina, there were at least a hundred people ready to board along with the Reyes family. Some were leaving with the prospect of making a new life outside the island, others with the idea of returning when conditions improve.

"We are going for the safety of the children. We do not know if there will be food, gas (...) It'sa difficult decision but we had the opportunity to ride on this plane," said a mother of two, a three-year-old and a 10-month-old, who did not want to be identified. Her destination was the city of Miami, Florida, and then her sister's house in Orlando.

They only had three changes of clothes, which allowed them to board the plane that arrived with humanitarian aid and left loaded with people. In the days folowing the hurricane this small terminal became a key exit point. The city's international airport had to cut back its operations to about 20 flights a day, compared to almost 150 that usually fly on and out.

"Some are private charter flights that come with cargo but are configured (with seating) and return with passengers. The word got out and people have taken advantage of the humanitarian flights to leave," said the airport spokeswoman, Frances Ryan.

Some paid up to $1,250 per head to get aboard, three or four times more than the usual cost on a commercial airline.

It is still premature to estimate how many people have left or are planning to do so, experts say. It is also difficult to quantify how many are departing temporarily or permanently. But, faced with one of the biggest emergencies in Puerto Rico's history, Governor Ricardo Rosselló urged President Donald Trump to help Puerto Rico not "empty out."

Rossello said "we have to recognize that here the collaboration of the federal government is needed because otherwise what we are going to be see happen is a massive migration to the United States, it will empty Puerto Rico," he said in an interview for Univision's Al Punto program.

Meanwhile, without water or electricity, across the island people are weighing up possible departure, even without having somewhere to go in the United States.

That's the case of María Isabel Meléndez in the coastal town of Fajardo, in the east. Her husband has Parkinson's disease and they have no water in the bathroom. "He told me 'Let's go two or three months, at least until the water comes back,'" said Meléndez, standing in searing heat caused by the deforestation caused by Maria.

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