A tiny episode in the surging exodus from Puerto Rico unfolded on a ramp off of PR-30, a six-lane highway near this city. The highway shoulders resembled a parking lot. Hundreds of parked drivers made cell phone calls to relatives stateside, taking advantage of a rare working cell tower nearby. Carlos Rolón Marcano, standing outside his blue Hyundai, placed a call to a friend in Florida.
“We’re all going, me, my wife and the girls,” Rolón said into his phone, placing a hand over an ear to block out traffic noise. “Water is running out. There’s very little gasoline. The lines are enormous. And we’re doing it for the girls.”
It had been a 24-hour whirlwind. Less than a day earlier, Rolón, a financial planner, had bought airline tickets for himself, his wife and two daughters to travel to Orlando on Oct. 22, the earliest chance for seats on packed outbound flights. And now there were other things to worry about. In addition to looking for water and food, Rolón would spend part of his day dealing with mounds of downed tree trunks in his yard, sorting through piles of moldy clothes and saying his goodbyes.
“Our expectation is to come back. But we don’t know how long it will take Puerto Rico to get back on its feet,” said Rolón, 41, who still retains the physique of the competitive high jumper and volleyball player he once was.
Hurricane Maria dealt a night-time haymaker punch to Puerto Rico nearly two weeks ago. As Sept. 20 rolled into Sept. 21, the storm threw gusts of up to 200 miles per hour at the island, and as of Tuesday 95 percent of the island’s 3.4 million people still had no steady power from the electric utility. Elevators don’t work. Nor do many ATMs. Potable water remains scarce, with only 45 percent of islanders enjoying it. Public schools are largely shut and the economy is crippled. For families like that of Carlos Rolón, leaving Puerto Rico is a matter of survival.
I have a couple hundred bucks to stay afloat.
Carlos Rolón Marcano, Puerto Rican financial planner
“I have a couple hundred bucks to stay afloat,” he explained as he walked around his damaged home in San Lorenzo, a 15-minute drive from Caguas. “If I stay, I will have no money, no water, no food, no gasoline, no nothing.”
Earlier in the day, Rolón’s wife, Nerys Medina Aloyo, described her family’s experiences with the hurricane. “We were just fine before Maria. Right now, we are…” Medina choked back tears for 20 seconds before she could finish the sentence, “without work.”
“We’re trying to get some help. All they’re offering now are loans. But without work, that doesn’t help. We’ve got a house to pay for, cars to pay for,” she said.
“The schools aren’t working so the girls would lose the school year,” she said. “We don’t want to leave this little island. But for my girls, and because of the money — everything is in cash, food is scarce, there’s no water — we can’t do anything else but leave.”
Puerto Rico’s population has been shrinking for at least a decade and a half, an out-migration caused by economic malaise and choking debt. Some 300,000 people have left the island in the past five years alone — about 230 Puerto Ricans each day.
At a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said that if Congress doesn’t approve a robust disaster relief and reconstruction package, the exodus will accelerate.
You’re not only going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the states, you’re going to get millions.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló
“You’re not only going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the states, you’re going to get millions,” Rosselló warned, adding that such an exodus would be a “devastating demographic shift” for Puerto Rico and place a burden on a number of U.S. states.
“I remind you that since we are U.S. citizens, there is not much paperwork, or no paperwork, you have to do other than purchasing a flight to one of the states,” he said.
Warnings are also coming from private analysts. In an investor note, IHS Markit, a London-based consultancy, said Puerto Rico’s economy has contracted 1.5 percent a year on average since 2006 and is projected to fall 3.6 percent in 2017 and 2.8 percent in 2018.
Stakes are high for a “major reconstruction package.” Without it, problems will worsen, it said: “This would increase the migration from the island and generate growing risks of protests and looting.”
In bigger cities, signs of recovery are slow. Rosselló said 814 out of the nation’s 1,100 gas stations are now open for some hours a day, and lines are down from six to seven hours four days ago to less than an hour. Sixty-five percent of supermarkets have reopened, he said.
Back at the Rolón house, suitcases littered the master bedroom and clothes were piled high. Paint bubbled from the ceiling where storm water had leaked in. A propane camping stove sat atop the electric range that now is useless without power.
“I’m sorry for the smell. How do you say that?” Rolón asked in English, nodding his head when he heard the word mildew.
Rolón and Medina spent two years in New Jersey from 2008-10. He worked as a manager in a Target in Hackensack. When they returned to the island, they thought it was forever. He got successive jobs as an auditor for JC Penney, then as a financial adviser working with clients on pension plans, annuities and life insurance. Things were going well. Then successive hurricanes hit, first milder Irma on Sept. 6, then devastating Maria.
Nobody wants to talk about finance. Nobody wants to talk about IRAs.
Carlos Rolón Marcano, Puerto Rican financial planner
“It was like an implosion,” Rolón said. “Nobody wants to talk about finance. Nobody wants to talk about IRAs.” His income went to zero, with no prospects of near-term recovery.
The island’s financial sector has responded broadly, and for Rolón there has been relief. Their bank offered the couple three months’ grace on the $50,000 remaining on their mortgage, and similar grace periods for two auto loans. But Rolón said he would face likely foreclosure in January unless he can begin earning money in Florida.
Rolón, who has family in the Orlando area, has a license to sell insurance and other financial products in Florida. He said it pains him that Puerto Rico is suffering a brain and talent drain. “I know that Puerto Rico needs professionals to stay here. Why? Because if the professional is leaving, who’s going to work? Who’s going to pay taxes? Who’s going to keep Puerto Rico, like, moving forward?”
In an adjacent room, daughters Glennys,16, and Karelys, 11, recalled their fear the night of the hurricane, when they huddled in a bedroom, listening with fear as debris bashed against windows and water seeped under doors.
“Max was here with us,” said Karelys, referring to the family’s Shih Tzu dog.
The small dog yapped from a back terrace. “He’ll stay with my mom. We don’t have enough money to take him,” Medina said.
The younger daughter’s mood is noticeably better than the others. Hours after hearing that the family would move to Florida, Karelys said it seemed like a personal miracle.
“I felt happy. I screamed. I jumped on the sofa. I ran,” she said. Barely cognizant of the precarious financial situation of her parents, the daughter looked forward to starting a new school, finding a volleyball team to join, making new friends.
Now, it may take a miracle to restore the health of the island and turn Puerto Rico into a magnet for its people.