After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Luis Cruz got a generator connection from the bakery next door to run lights and fans in his Humacao martial-arts studio. But last month, only about a third of his students were still practicing karate kicks and punches. Many had left for the U.S. mainland.
“Thank God I didn’t lose my gym or my home in the storm, but I depend on clients who did,” said Cruz, a 38-year-old father of three with a rosary dangling from his neck.
Now he may follow, relocating his business to Florida, where he made a fact-finding trip to Orlando last month. Since early October, some 231,000 Puerto Ricans have traveled to the Orlando, Tampa and Miami airports, a number that surpasses the population of Rochester, New York.
The new residents are likely to be both burden and boon. The immigrants, who are all citizens, are arriving as national unemployment has fallen to 4.1 percent and Florida’s is 3.6 percent, down from a recessionary peak of 11.2 percent. They will feed the hungry labor market, but strain social services as they embark on new lives.
Puerto Rico was in bad shape even before the hurricane. The island declared a record $74 billion municipal bankruptcy in May, owing in part to the fact that its population had been shrinking for more than a decade as people left for better opportunities. Then on Sept. 20 the storm came, devastating infrastructure and killing hundreds. Recovery has crawled; by Tuesday, the island was still generating only about 64 percent of the power it needs.
The weight of the resulting exodus is falling on Florida. Politicians in the perennial swing state have competed to greet the storm-tossed citizens, who could be a crucial voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election.
“Any families displaced by Hurricane Maria that come to Florida are welcomed and offered every available resource,” Republican Governor Rick Scott’s office said in a statement.
Orlando, a metropolitan area of about 2.4 million, is especially attractive to the new Floridians, with the prospect of jobs in the Disney World-fueled hospitality industry, free couches from friends and relatives, and necessities like passable roads and functioning schools. But the mass migration has the city bursting at the seams.
“I tell them, ‘Please make sure you have a place to stay,’” said Ana Cruz, coordinator for Orlando’s Hispanic Office for Local Assistance. “Be with a friend, be with a family member. Because housing is the No. 1 issue that we have.’”
New arrivals are frequently eligible for a stay in a hotel approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but some have found themselves living out of cars.
One family was living at a children’s hospital where their daughter was being treated.
“We’re trying to find an apartment to try to establish ourselves in Florida, but the inexpensive ones are all full,” said father Jorge Hernandez, 26, who helped on movie sets in Puerto Rico. He and his family, including his 10-month-old with spinal muscular atrophy, were brought over on a charity’s air ambulance.
On a recent Friday, Osceola County’s Hurricane Maria Reception Center, installed in an out-of-use government building, was bustling with job seekers, crying babies and the elderly. The center is a repository for everything from employment notices (housekeepers, cooks, mechanics) to FEMA-approved hotel listings (Quality Inn, Super 8, Travelodge.)
“Most of the people who have come so far are staying with family and friends, and it’s going to take a while for them to be absorbed,” said David Barnett, human services manager for the county south of Orlando. He said most are planning to remain.
School districts statewide have enrolled more than 8,500 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to Scott’s office. But the state is already critically short of teachers in science, math, English and English as a second language.
In Orlando’s Orange County, home to the nation’s ninth-biggest school district, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said more than 2,500 Puerto Rican students have arrived since the storm, and many more are expected. The district planned by plotting out the areas of greatest Puerto Rican concentration, knowing that students would stay with relatives.
The newcomers, many at home in mainland culture and with family support structures, may be easier to absorb than the people who came in the so-called Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought about 125,000 Cubans in about six months. Many had scant English and some were just freed from prisons. And in a benefit to the local economy, the newcomers often bring businesses.
Cruz was among several dozen Puerto Ricans who on Nov. 30 attended a free Spanish-language seminar on establishing businesses. There was strategy and legal advice, sessions on construction and restaurants, and attendees were showered with pamphlets and pens from Wells Fargo and Regions Bank.
“They need access to capital,” said Katia Medina, a business-development coordinator with Prospera, a government-backed nonprofit that helped put on the business seminar. “At the beginning, they’re just creating work for themselves, but eventually they’re going to be creating jobs.”
Prospera, which helps Spanish-speaking business people, has seen twice as many would-be entrepreneurs at its Orlando office since the storm.
Cruz likes the idea of building something from the ground up.
“A lot of people are just taking the leap of faith, without any type of plan,” he said. “Not me. I want to have a strategy.”