Waiting at the airport to leave San Juan five days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico
Waiting at the airport to leave San Juan five days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico Alvin Baez/Reuters

More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island and it is estimated that almost half a million could migrate to the continent by 2019.

Six months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican migration to the continental United States continues to be one of the greatest consequences of the natural disaster that hit the island last September.

While there is no single, permanent record that maps the number of Puerto Ricans that have left the island for the continent, the City University of New York’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) found a way to get close to an accurate diagnosis: Through address changes registered in FEMA and changes in enrollment of students in school districts throughout the country. In particular, this last set of data is fundamental, according to the researchers, since it seems to reflect more permanent migration in comparison to the figures given by FEMA.

The study estimated that 135,592 Puerto Ricans have settled on the continent, according to data obtained by the various Departments of Education in six states that account for 80 percent of the Puerto Rican population on the continent: Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. The estimate took into account the migratory patterns prior to the hurricane and data from between 2013 and 2016 collected by the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey; in addition to school enrollment of Puerto Ricans in those states in the three years before the hurricane.

Enrolled Puerto Rican Students (K-12)

Estimated Migration
Continental U.S. 24,406 135,592

Six states (FL, CT, MA, NY, NJ, PA)

21,640 111,185
Florida 11,554 56,477
Other states 2,766 24,406
Massachusetts 4,556 15,208
Connecticut 1,827 13,292
New York 2,218 11,217
Pennsylvania 2,599 9,963
New Jersey 886 5,027

Data obtained from FEMA indicates that Puerto Ricans have dispersed in 49 of the 50 states––Hawaii is the only exception––and they have continued to concentrate mainly in Florida and the northeast corridor.

FEMA reported that, as of February of this year, 19,271 families (approximately 40,013 people) have registered a change of address from Puerto Rico to one of the states on the continent. However, one of the most important conclusions of the study is that Maria's impact has shifted Puerto Ricans’ focus from the traditional urban centers. Post-Maria, the data from the state of New York shows that the enrollment rate of Puerto Rican students has been higher in upstate cities than in New York City itself.

The Exodus in Numbers
The counties with the largest number of Puerto Ricans that, as of February 2018, registered an address in the continental U.S. with FEMA.

Puerto Ricans evacuated in the continental US, registered with FEMA

0 - 1

1 - 230

230 - 590

More than 2,850

1,130 - 2,850

ENLARGED AREA

ENLARGED AREA

WA

Hampden

1,290

OR

ME

ID

VT

NH

MI

NY

NV

CA

PA

UT

OH

IN

IL

Philadelphia

1,289

WV

VA

KY

AZ

NC

TN

SC

MS

GA

AL

Orange

4,503

FL

Osceola

2,839

Polk

1,490

Hillsborough

1,366

Miami-Dade

1,610

COUNTIES WITH MORE

PUERTO RICANS EVACUEES

TOTAL

Orange (Florida)

Osceola (Florida)

Miami-Dade (Florida)

Polk (Florida)

Hillsborough (Florida)

Hampden (Massachusetts)

Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)

Broward (Florida)

Cook (Illinois)

Hartford (Connecticut)

4,503

2,839

1,610

1,490

1,366

1,290

1,289

1,122

1,116

1,001

Puerto Ricans evacuated in the continental US, registered with FEMA

0 - 1

1 - 230

230 - 590

More than 2,850

1,130 - 2,850

ENLARGED AREA

ENLARGED AREA

ME

VT

NH

MI

NY

Hampden

1,290

PA

OH

IL

IN

Philadelphia

1,289

WV

VA

KY

NC

TN

SC

MS

GA

AL

Orange

4,503

FL

Osceola

2,839

Polk

1,490

Hillsborough

1,366

Miami-Dade

1,610

COUNTIES WITH MORE

PUERTO RICANS EVACUEES

TOTAL

Orange (Florida)

Osceola (Florida)

Miami-Dade (Florida)

Polk (Florida)

Hillsborough (Florida)

Hampden (Massachusetts)

Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)

Broward (Florida)

Cook (Illinois)

Hartford (Connecticut)

4,503

2,839

1,610

1,490

1,366

1,290

1,289

1,122

1,116

1,001

Puerto Ricans evacuated in the continental US, registered with FEMA

0 - 1

More than 2,850

1 - 230

230 - 590

1,130 - 2,850

Hampden

1,290

WA

ME

Philadelphia

1,289

MT

ND

MN

VT

OR

NH

WI

ID

SD

MI

NY

WY

PA

IA

NE

NV

OH

IL

CA

IN

UT

MO

CO

WV

KS

VA

KY

NC

TN

AZ

OK

NM

SC

AR

MS

AL

GA

TX

Orange

4,503

LA

FL

Osceola

2,839

Polk

1,490

Miami-Dade

1,610

Hillsborough

1,366

COUNTIES WITH MORE PUERTO RICAN EVACUEES

TOTAL

Orange (Florida)

Osceola (Florida)

Miami-Dade (Florida)

Polk (Florida)

Hillsborough (Florida)

Hampden (Massachusetts)

Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)

Broward (Florida)

Cook (Illinois)

Hartford (Connecticut)

4,503

2,839

1,610

1,490

1,366

1,290

1,289

1,122

1,116

1,001

Puerto Ricans evacuated in the continental US, registered with FEMA

0 - 1

More than 2,850

1 - 230

230 - 590

1,130 - 2,850

WA

ME

MT

ND

MN

VT

OR

WI

NH

ID

SD

NY

MI

WY

Hampden

1,290

PA

NE

IA

NV

OH

IN

IL

Philadelphia

1,289

CA

UT

WV

MO

CO

KS

VA

KY

NC

AZ

TN

OK

NM

SC

AR

MS

AL

GA

TX

LA

Orange

4,503

FL

Osceola

2,839

Polk

1,490

Hillsborough

1,366

Miami-Dade

1,610

COUNTIES WITH MORE PUERTO RICAN EVACUEES

TOTAL

Orange (Florida)

Osceola (Florida)

Miami-Dade (Florida)

Polk (Florida)

Hillsborough (Florida)

Hampden (Massachusetts)

Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)

Broward (Florida)

Cook (Illinois)

Hartford (Connecticut)

4,503

2,839

1,610

1,490

1,366

1,290

1,289

1,122

1,116

1,001

Source: Center for Puerto Rican Studies CUNY | UNIVISION

FEMA registers the highest number of evacuees in Florida with 18,013, followed by New York (3,683), Massachusetts (3,399), Pennsylvania (2,954), Connecticut (2,281), New Jersey (1,690), Texas (1,361), Illinois (1,324) , Georgia (530), and Virginia (479).

Similarly, the study shows how the migration before Maria—attributed to the island's fiscal crisis and known by academics as “Millennial migration” (because a majority of the people who migrated were late Millennials)––has directly influenced the decisions of those affected by the hurricane to move to the continent.

As the study states: “It is evident that post-Hurricane Puerto Rican migration is, and continues to be, driven by Millennial migration, in terms of relocating to similar states, located in both U.S. South, particularly Florida, and in traditional states of settlement. More importantly, Puerto Ricans showed dispersion within both states of new and traditional states, by residing in counties outside central cities.”

What impact does this have?

The island is being depopulated progressively, and quickly. Centro's researchers estimate that Puerto Rico could lose around 470,000 residents between 2017 and 2019, as a direct consequence of the devastation caused by Maria. This figure is close to the approximately 525,769 Puerto Ricans who left the island between 2006 and 2016.

Thus, Puerto Rico could lose almost the same amount of people that it lost in ten years, but this time in only two, because of Maria. Today, there are almost 5.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the continent, while on the island there are 3.3 million. The tipping point was, according to the data, the financial crisis that began in 2006.

According to Jennifer Hinojosa, research associate, co-author of the study and coordinator of Centro's data center, the problem is huge. The groups that have migrated are mainly people of reproductive age and their children, and that represents generational change for the future. “They are children who are going to grow up on the continent, and not in Puerto Rico, and if they return after having been away all this time, this will become a big economic and social problem in the years to come,” says Hinojosa.

The Puerto Rican education sector is one that has been affected the most by migration to the continent. A total of 243 public schools closed throughout the island between 2006 and 2017. Some were closed because of budget cuts, others when underfunded schools struggled to fill their seats as students moved to the continent. Another 467 schools are expected to close by 2022 as a result of the post-Maria exodus, according to the study.

The number of teachers has also declined: In 2006 there were 40,514 teachers in Puerto Rico, while at the end of 2017 the figure was almost half that: 20,915. The decrease has meant a shortage of teachers for Puerto Rican schools. The government of Puerto Rico is pushing to close schools and privatize education on the island.

According to Hinojosa, the migration will not stop in the near future. “We are seeing that the return of Puerto Ricans to the island is diminishing,” she says. “We could be losing an entire generation of Puerto Ricans on the island.”

Visualizations by Luis Melgar of Univision Graphics.

A version of this post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

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