In the coming days, Puerto Rico is set to ask for several billion dollars in federal relief after two major hurricanes, as officials acknowledge that the months-long recovery may compel more residents to abandon an already economically distressed island.
The wind and rain from hurricanes Irma and Maria have compounded other significant concerns for the island of 3.4 million people: a double-digit unemployment rate, a looming shortfall in Medicaid funding, a bankrupt electric company and stricter federal oversight of the island’s already debt-ridden finances. These issues are perennial but mostly overlooked in Washington.
“We have to begin to think in the worst possible terms, between power restoration, critical infrastructure, housing assistance, the need to airlift critical medical patients out of the island to the mainland, seniors, things like that,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose state is home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans.
But over the next several months, “the combination of the financial crisis, the health-care crisis and now these two natural disasters, it’s a recipe for a lot of people to feel that they’re hopeless and they need to come to the [mainland] United States,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), whose Brooklyn-area district has a significant Puerto Rican constituency. Velázquez, who is awaiting news about family members on the island, warned that if legislation addressing the economic problems isn’t coupled with federal hurricane relief, “we’re going to have an unprecedented number of people who will continue to leave the island.”
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico has a nonvoting member of the House and no U.S. senators. It does, however, benefit from a network of Democrats and Republicans who have roots on the island, own property there or represent states and districts with large voting blocs with Puerto Rican heritage.
“Puerto Rico doesn’t have a senator, so we’ve always treated it as a place we care about a lot,” Rubio said.
About 80,000 Puerto Rico residents moved to the mainland United States last year, part of an exodus driven by the island’s devastated economy. Most of them relocated to Florida — another reason for lawmakers such as Rubio to worry about the island.
President Trump on Thursday declared a major disaster across at least 55 municipalities in Puerto Rico and is expected to inspect damage there in the coming days, said Rubio and others familiar with his plans. Aides to top congressional leaders said they have not yet received requests for federal relief from the administration. Rubio, Velázquez and others are also hoping to visit the island soon to assess the damage and report back to colleagues.
Carlos Mercader, a Washington-based spokesman for Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, said officials are unable to make basic estimates of the potential costs, but “we know it’s going to be in the billions.”
With electricity not expected to be fully restored for months, “people may feel that they need to leave for a while, that may propel the migration,” Mercader said. “If the recovery takes a lot of time, people may feel impatient and that they might need to leave.”
Realizing that his comments might cause panic, Mercader added, “I don’t want to call for an exodus or for people to think, ‘Whoa, we have to leave.’ I want people to be calm.”
In Florida, the arrival of thousands of island transplants has transformed cities such as Orlando and Kissimmee and is changing local and national politics. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can participate in presidential primaries but cannot vote for president while living on the island. Once they move to the mainland, they are eligible, so Democrats and Republicans in Florida eagerly sought out new arrivals last year, urging them to register to vote in the 2016 election.
Rep. Darren Soto (D), the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent to serve in Congress, was elected last year on the strength of the booming Puerto Rican vote in the Orlando area. On Thursday, he was having difficulty making contact with friends and family on the island.“We’ve anticipated we’ll see tens of thousands of folks here at least temporarily,” he said. “Many were, I’m sure, already contemplating the move, but this will push them over the top.”
Soto has been working with state Rep. Robert Asencio (D), who represents parts of west Miami-Dade and Kendall and who warned that the arrivals will “put a strain on existing services.”
“It may even result in the state of Florida requesting more money to the federal government for relief,” he added.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) has been in touch with Rosselló about providing relief, and the state is “100 percent committed to work with counties and local governments regarding potential needs, such as shelters and resources,” spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said in a statement. But Florida is still dealing with a disaster recovery effort of its own in the aftermath of deadly Hurricane Irma, which left homes destroyed and millions without power.
Rubio said he has mentioned to Vice President Pence and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly the potential for a large migration of people but that it shouldn’t be a big concern. “They’re American citizens, they can move anywhere they want,” he said.
In Congress, Puerto Rico is represented by Jenniffer González-Colón, a nonvoting member who caucuses with Republicans. Her aides couldn’t immediately say Thursday what she is doing to push for federal relief. In addition to Velázquez and Soto, several other Puerto Ricans serve in Congress: Reps. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) and José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.).
Gutiérrez and Velázquez called on the Trump administration to temporarily suspend the Jones Act, which requires all cargo transported between U.S. ports be carried on American ships, so that medicine, food and other supplies can reach the island quickly. In a letter to Trump, Gutierrez also asked the White House to grant Puerto Rico a waiver from laws requiring state governments to match some federal relief funding.
Gutierrez has a home in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, and said he’d been in touch with an elderly neighbor who recounted how balconies fell off houses during the storm. He told her to go next door to use his power generator.
“It is common knowledge among people in Puerto Rico that the water and the electricity is never certain. If that’s the case, think of the uncertainty that exists today,” he said.
The island is reeling from a “Medicaid cliff” that is set to leave a nine-figure funding shortfall to pay for health-care services next March. Congress provided nearly $300 million in relief as part of a federal spending package in the spring, but Rosselló has been visiting Washington frequently, asking that annual spending bills provide even more relief for the island.
Even before the hurricanes, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said it needed more than $4 billion to overhaul its outdated power plants and reduce its heavy reliance on imported oil. The company filed for bankruptcy protection on July 2, a setback that is sure to delay the restoration of power across the island.
Those funding shortfalls come as Congress has instituted a federal control board to address the island’s mounting fiscal crisis. The unelected body now oversees the island’s finances, focusing especially on restructuring more than $72 billion in bond debt.
Federico de Jesús, a Puerto Rican Democratic political consultant in Washington who advises nonprofit groups and other entities on the island’s affairs, said that despite the devastation, there may be a “silver lining,” because when hurricanes hit, “all of these issues come to the fore. People who don’t think about Puerto Rico in D.C. start to think about it.”