ORLANDO — In Terminal A of the airport here, travelers from Puerto Rico typically say nothing at first as they pass security and reunite with their Florida families.
They hug. They cry. There are no words to describe adequately what they’ve been through since Hurricane Maria struck their island head on.
They are also angry. In interviews over the past week, local residents and storm refugees have expressed dismay at the slow pace of aid to Puerto Rico and have derided President Trump as callous in word and deed.
That could bring political ramifications here in the nation’s largest swing state, where more than 1 million residents of Puerto Rican descent have become a powerful and coveted voting bloc — one whose numbers could swell as more residents of the island with relatives here permanently escape Maria’s destruction. By one estimate, at least 100,000 Puerto Ricans could relocate, at least temporarily, to Florida.
“This is his Katrina. He took too long,” said Ralph Persia, a retired police officer who was part of an Orlando family at the airport to greet three relatives fleeing the island.
It’s hard to overestimate Florida’s political significance — or the potential electoral impact of a major influx of eligible voters. The nation’s third-largest state boasts 29 electoral votes in presidential elections, an enormous and sometimes decisive haul often won by a razor-thin margin. Trump won Florida by fewer than 120,000 votes last year, aided more than past Republican candidates by non-Hispanic white voters. A boost of enthusiasm among Puerto Ricans — and a surge in their numbers, propelled by Maria — could alter that math in next year’s midterm elections and beyond.
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can register to vote in any state as soon as they establish residency.
“All politics is about motivation, and at this point, the Hispanic community here is extremely motivated against Trump,” said Anthony Suarez, a lawyer and local political elder who was elected the first Puerto Rican member of the Florida House in 1999. The community now has six of its own representing Florida between the state legislature and the U.S. House: three Republicans and three Democrats.
State and national politicians have taken notice of the post-Maria diaspora.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a possible Trump challenger in 2020, was one of the first mainland politicians to visit Puerto Rico after Maria hit last month. Rubio has repeatedly urged a more robust federal response.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year, recently visited a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Central Florida to criticize Trump's response to the storm. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a likely Nelson challenger, declared a state of emergency in every Florida county, traveled to Puerto Rico and visited the White House to discuss the response. Scott was running neck-and-neck with Nelson in a Senate poll released in August by Florida Atlantic University.
Even Vice President Pence arrived here Thursday, addressing the Puerto Rican community at a church, Iglesia de Dios, in Kissimmee. He went on to visit Puerto Rico on Friday.
But it is Trump who has dominated all political conversations — making Florida a special test in 2018 of whether the president will be a liability for Republicans on the ballot.
Raul Ramos, 73, a Trump supporter and board member of a nonprofit called Latino Leadership, said he was turned off by Trump’s comments: “I don’t call him Mr. President anymore. I call him Mr. Tweet.”
Ramos pointed to Trump’s broadsides against San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had criticized the federal government’s response to the storm.
“She was just saying, ‘I need help.’ The Trump people made it political,” Ramos said. “She has nothing to gain right now. She has enough on her plate. People are dying.”
Trump has declared that his administration has done an “A-plus” job of responding to Maria, but the federal effort as well as the territorial emergency operations were overwhelmed when the storm knocked out the entire electrical grid and much of the water supply, rendered communication impossible and left Puerto Ricans wondering why the cavalry hadn’t arrived. Trump also issued combative tweets and comments that seemed to blame Puerto Rico for its problems even as local residents and officials pleaded for more help.
Marina Vasquez, 33, a lawyer arriving from San Juan, was taken aback by the president’s comments about Puerto Rico’s debt problems: “It’s the fact that you’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, and you can talk about debt while people are dying?”
Rep. Darren Soto (D), who represents a heavily Puerto Rican district in Central Florida, said last week, “We Puerto Ricans are going to remember where leaders were during the last few weeks.”
People with resources and local connections have dominated the first wave of Puerto Rico evacuees. But even they are often showing up feeling physically ravaged — and sometimes thirsty.
“I’m sorry about the way I’m talking, but I haven’t had water in two days,” one of the evacuees said over the phone this week to Marytza Sanz, who works at Latino Leadership. Another woman told Sanz she had exactly 75 cents to her name.
The staff at Latino Leadership batted around many questions that illustrated the anxiety sweeping through the Puerto Rican community here: How high was the actual death toll from the hurricane? Would aid reach the people in the mountains? Would the shooting in Las Vegas overshadow the crisis and make people forget about Puerto Rico? Can Central Florida and its schools absorb the number of people ready to come? Can Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.4 million that was already dwindling, survive another brain drain?
Weaving in and out of the crowded office was Marucci Guzman, 34, the group’s executive director, whose family moved to the mainland when she was 3.
Guzman was taken aback by the president’s comment that Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them.”
“People are surviving because of the sweat and tears of the people who live there. They weren’t waiting for the government to do it for them,” Guzman said, fighting back tears.
The steady flow of people to the mainland had already picked up over the past two years as Puerto Rico became mired in a debt crisis.
Even without a hurricane prodding in-migration, Florida takes in more than a thousand new residents from across the United States every day. Massive planned residential communities have replaced many of the pastures, citrus groves and cypress swamps of Old Florida. That has produced an essentially different electorate every four years, making Florida the mood ring of American politics.
Last year, a report from the Hispanic Federation predicted that Puerto Ricans would surpass Cubans in Florida by 2020 as the state's largest group of Hispanics. This could have massive political implications, because Cubans are reliable Republican voters and Puerto Ricans are less predictable — even a "little more progressive," according to Esteban Garces, Florida state director for Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement group.
And the growth in the Puerto Rican population is almost certain to accelerate after Maria: Soto expects 100,000 people to relocate here at least temporarily.
For many, Central Florida is now more enticing than the traditional Puerto Rican enclaves of the Northeast. “It’s much harder to bring in three, four relatives and put them in an already cramped New York City apartment than it is to bring them to Orlando,” said Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a history professor at the University of Central Florida.
“I hope that folks realize that this influx is coming,” Garces said in a telephone interview. “Puerto Ricans carry with them a lot of power when they move to the mainland, and it’s likely they will settle here in central Florida. With that comes a lot of potential.”
Puerto Ricans who migrated from the island to the Northeast originally, and then to Central Florida, tend to vote Democratic, political analysts say. The ones coming directly to Florida from the island are more likely to be swing voters, though.
Puerto Rican voters in Florida strongly supported Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. But they also helped Charlie Crist win the Florida governorship when he ran as a Republican.
“The idea that if Puerto Ricans come here, or Puerto Rico becomes a state, that it will be blue is not accurate,” said Florida state Rep. Rene Plasencia (R), who was elected in a district that leans Democratic. “They’re not aligned with parties.”
Many Puerto Ricans settled in Kissimmee, an old cow town where metal images of cowboy boots and bucking broncos are hammered into the downtown sidewalk. A local shopping mall has a store selling nothing but Puerto Rico souvenirs, including customized domino tables.
Finishing lunch at Melao Bakery, Neil Delgado, 48, a home inspector, said he feels guilty living in an air-conditioned home with plenty of food while his family on the island is suffering. But the older people will all stay, he said. They love their home. They will grow food to survive.
“We know how to eat from the Earth,” he said. “The problem now is psychological. Everyone is stressed. They’re in kind of a depression. And it’s going to get worse.”
The federal response to Maria is not the only issue that may weigh on the minds of Puerto Rican voters next year and beyond.
Suarez, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, switched his party registration from Republican to independent last month in protest of Trump suspending protections for unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Suarez said the immigration debate matters to Puerto Ricans because their families often include Hispanics from other backgrounds who are more directly affected.
Giving Puerto Ricans a path back to the island is also a priority for some. At a community center in East Orlando surrounded by fellow members of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, Suarez announced an initiative to help the island’s second- and third-year law students temporarily continue their instruction on the mainland. Fifty-one students had already been placed in four schools.
He hopes they eventually return.
“We don’t want to take the leadership of Puerto Rico out of Puerto Rico,” Suarez said. “So they have to go back.”
Gabriela and Carlos Rivera, sister and brother ages 26 and 23, arrived at the Orlando airport Monday. They rode out the storm in their parents’ home in the town of Humacao, above the family furniture store.
Sunday night, the family left home and drove to the airport in San Juan, where they all spent the night, hoping to get on an 8 a.m. flight. That was canceled, but Gabriela and Carlos managed to get on an 11 a.m. flight to Miami. They say their father was stoic, their mother weeping — “Because we don’t know when we’ll see each other again,” Gabriela said.
From Miami they caught a flight to Orlando, where they were met by their uncle, who promptly took them to a buffet in East Orlando where they ate voraciously.
On Wednesday, they were at the kitchen table of their aunt and uncle in a beautiful home in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., recounting the terrible whistle of the storm, the massive destruction, the complete absence of a government response, no sign of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, no power, the whole nightmare.
Carlos: “The island went back, like, 50 years.”
Gabriela: “Sixty years back.”
He said of the president, “I don’t expect Donald Trump to say the right things, because I have heard him since before he was president, but I did expect him to have some common courtesy for the people who are suffering on the island.”
Gabriela: “It was a circus. He was throwing paper towels like it was a basketball — like it was a game.”
They don’t know what their future holds. She’s a law student and may spend much of this year, if not longer, studying in a law school in Florida. He is getting close to a degree in computer science and hopes to finish up on the island. But he says he will leave the island if his career prospects are better elsewhere.
They have options. They say they want to go home to the island. For now, they’re in the wind.