The crisis in Puerto Rico could send tens of thousands of people to Florida, accelerating an already steady exodus from the economically depressed island and triggering wide-ranging effects on schools, housing and jobs.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and Florida needs to brace for the influx,” said Dennis Freytes, a political activist in the Orlando area. “Many of the people coming are the most vulnerable. I’m desperately trying to get my 92-year-old mother out of there and haven’t been able to even with my connections.”
The wave might also carry political ramifications.
“Florida is a big swing state and Central Florida is the epicenter of that,” Freytes said. “This could be a very big deal. There are going to be voter registration drives and both parties are going to be after them. They already are.”
More than 1 million Puerto Ricans already reside in Florida — some 1,000 families relocating each month — double the number in 2000 and now rivaling New York.
The growth, largely around Orlando but also in Tampa Bay, has outpaced the overall population increase in Florida as well as that of Hispanics overall.
Now Hurricane Maria could send as many as 100,000 more Puerto Ricans to the state, adding to growing political clout, just as waves of Cubans decades ago formed a potent voting bloc in Miami.
In a state of more than 20 million, it may not seem like a big deal. But top Florida elections are often decided by narrow margins. “It’s a state where little tiny changes matter,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale.
Until recently, Cubans were reliable Republican votes. By contrast, Puerto Ricans, who arrive as U.S. citizens, have largely favored Democrats and are elevating members of the community to power. Last year, Democrat Darren Soto of Orlando was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first Puerto Rican to serve in Congress from Florida.
“It only makes sense that when you have a large, growing population, it will gain some influence,” said Emily Bonilla, a Democrat who last year was elected to the Orange County Commission. “We as Puerto Ricans care about our families, the community and supporting each other.”
In every recent presidential election, the number of Puerto Rican voters has grown, said Jorge Duany, a Florida International University professor who is an expert in Cuban and Puerto Rican populations. “Certainly the concentration of U.S. citizens who can vote right after they arrive and the fact they tend to be Democrats, it makes them a powerful voting bloc.”
Still, Puerto Ricans — and non Cuban Hispanics on the whole — have not voted at levels that match their strength.
Days before the 2016 presidential election, thousands of Puerto Ricans filled a baseball stadium in Kissimmee as President Barack Obama led a rally for Hillary Clinton. Many said they were outraged by Donald Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and they fueled a dramatic uptick in early-voting participation among Hispanics.
Trump won a narrow victory in Florida and captured a share of the Cuban American vote. Still, the GOP realizes it cannot continue to rely on a predominantly white voter base and has sought to increase outreach to Hispanics.
During the presidential primary, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio both tried to attract support in the Puerto Rican community.
“I’m not Republican, but he represents us,” Luis Cruzado who, like many in Kissimmee, was born in Puerto Rico, said of Rubio during a July 2015 interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “He would be the first Hispanic. That feels good to me.”
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, lost to Donald Trump but he easily won the primary in Puerto Rico. (While the island holds presidential primaries, and sends delegates to political conventions, residents there can’t vote in the general election.)
Rubio traveled to the island on Monday to survey the damage and has been a leading advocate in Washington for relief.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has also been pushing for a swift response. His potential 2018 rival, Gov. Rick Scott, made a visit to Kissimmee on Wednesday afternoon to thank volunteers helping in Puerto Rico.
“Florida stands ready to assist and support Puerto Rico,” Scott said, emphasizing that he had been in touch with officials on the island and was working to expedite deliver of goods. “Even as Florida works to fully recover from Hurricane Irma, our state still has the capability to support our neighbors and friends in their time of need.”
On Thursday, Scott traveled to Puerto Rico.
Politics will follow, but right now, humanitarian concerns are at the forefront, and Florida is preparing for a wave of Puerto Ricans leaving the island for good.
“The state is 100 percent committed to working with Florida counties and local governments regarding potential needs and resources,” Scott’s office said.
Hillsborough County is an obvious destination for evacuees from the island, with the second-largest Puerto Rican population in the state (114,555 in 2014) after Orange County. And the schools in the district have plenty of open seats.
Districtwide, there were 27,000 vacant seats, according to a recent count, when district officials wrote up their five-year capital plan. Schools in the Town ’N Country area — where many Puerto Rican families now live — have many of those seats.
But extra teachers are another matter, as Hillsborough has been lowering staff levels to save money.
Meantime, Puerto Rico will suffer from the loss of residents.
“The problem for the island,” Rubio said, “is the more people who leave, the smaller your tax base, the smaller your economy and ultimately the harder it’s going to be to recover.”
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.