They fled Hurricane Maria. Now, they’re fighting to defeat Trump.

Three years after the storm hit, can Puerto Rican survivors change the race in Florida and the country?
Local activist, Millie Santiago, poses for a portrait at the offices of Organize Florida on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 in Orlando.
Local activist, Millie Santiago, poses for a portrait at the offices of Organize Florida on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 in Orlando. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 2, 2020|Updated Oct. 2, 2020

ORLANDO — In a cell phone video Millie Santiago has kept for three years, the streets outside her Puerto Rican home are overtaken by muddy rapids and the wind whips palm trees into right angles.

It’s her personal documentary of the moment that Hurricane Maria stole nearly everything from her.

Little that came next seemed within her control. She lugged a generator from Florida to the island to reopen her daycare business, but without running water, the government shut her down. She moved her family to a Super 8 motel in Kissimmee, where she spent a year struggling to find work, living in fear that federal aid would run out. She helplessly watched as the stress changed her family.

“The distance between each of us, as a family, that hits me hard, and it’s what I miss most,” she said in Spanish. “The family that I built was united in the same goal, and now, I don’t know where anything starts or ends.”

Like many Puerto Ricans, Santiago, 52, was frustrated by what she saw as President Donald Trump’s insufficient response to the storm and a perceived lack of compassion for its victims. Now, she is part of a group of Hurricane Maria survivors working under the name Pa’lante por Más, or Forward for More, to get Latinos across the Orlando area to vote against Trump in November.

“Without fighting, we cannot expect progress,” Santiago said.

In the year after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, as many as 50,000 people moved from the island to the Sunshine State, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and researchers at University of Florida. From the moment they arrived, political operatives recognized the potential for them to shift election outcomes in Florida, where a victory margin of 2 percent is akin to a landslide.

The campaigns for Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden and their allies are pouring millions of dollars into Spanish-language ads in the final weeks of the race in hopes of swaying this Florida bloc of more than 1.3 million people. Both candidates have made direct pitches as well.

For Pa’lante por Más, the outreach is much more targeted, more personal and, organizers hope, more persuasive. They are focused on mobilizing the 200 families of Hurricane Maria survivors who, like them, toiled for months in Central Florida budget motels that served as temporary federal disaster housing.

These organizers are not seasoned political operatives. They are single mothers who came here with only a suitcase and their trauma. They are fathers searching for paychecks to send back to the island. And they are multi-generational families who tried to restart their lives in a place where schools were operating and the lights turned on.

The expectation is that a political message will be more effective coming from a familiar face, said Ericka Gómez-Tejeda, a director for Organize Florida, a social, racial, and economic justice nonprofit working with the survivors. Then, those 200 families will spread the information to their networks.

“That’s what we’re banking on,” Gómez-Tejeda said. “Nobody else was going to do it.”

Combating disinformation aimed at Latino voters is at the top of their agenda. Marieliza Figueroa, an organizer living in Altamonte Springs, said she has confronted absurd but convincing lies about Biden and Democrats on Spanish-language television and radio, Facebook and the messaging platform WhatsApp. She recently had to explain to a friend that Biden, a lifelong Catholic, does not want to close all the churches in the country.

Local activist Marieliza Figueroa, poses for a portrait at the offices of Organize Florida on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 in Orlando.
Local activist Marieliza Figueroa, poses for a portrait at the offices of Organize Florida on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 in Orlando. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Their success hinges on breaking a decades-long cycle of low voter turnout among Puerto Ricans in Florida. Though one-in-three Latino voters in Florida are part of the island’s diaspora, they have traditionally lagged behind Cuban Americans in political engagement.

On the island, voter turnout often exceeds 70 percent. It hasn’t translated to U.S. politics, where the election calendar — primaries, midterms, local contests — and long ballots are confusing compared to their quadrennial elections for a handful of races. Their political system is not built around Democrats and Republicans. It’s a multi-party system with factions divided over whether Puerto Rico should be a state, an independent country or remain a U.S. territory. English-speaking politicians bombard them with Spanish-language ads and often then disappear after the election.

“There’s skepticism. We’re not in the media, we’re not in the debates or in the campaigns except when candidates come out here,” said Fernando Rivera, a University of Central Florida professor who studies the Puerto Ricans in Florida. “And worse, we sometimes get blamed when one side loses.”

Figueroa arrived in Florida in December 2017. She had two bags, no money and a Section 8 voucher. The language barrier made it difficult to find work. But she voted regularly in Puerto Rico and soon joined efforts to organize Latinos around the motels in Kissimmee. Her enthusiasm was not always shared.

“I found many people who didn’t want to participate in politics,” Figueroa, 47, said. “Some people thought it was too controversial.”

Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria posed an opportunity for Democrats to build stronger inroads. Trump landed in Puerto Rico to assess the damage on Oct. 3, 2017, two weeks after the storm. He surveyed the wreckage — tens of thousands homeless and many more without power, water and internet — and declared the U.S. response a triumphant success. Besides, he said, Puerto Rico was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, because it wasn’t as deadly.

Fatalities would later be estimated at 3,000, far more than Katrina, though Trump said the body count had been inflated to make him look bad. He told the survivors of the storm, American citizens by birthright, that they had “thrown our budget a little out of whack.”

President Donald Trump tosses paper towels as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel on Tuesday in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
President Donald Trump tosses paper towels as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel on Tuesday in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

In an image Democrats would later emblazon on an Orlando-area billboard, Trump playfully tossed paper towels to onlookers like he was shooting free throws.

A national push two years ago to mobilize Latinos around Trump’s disaster response didn’t produce a surge of new Puerto Rican voters and Republicans narrowly won races in Florida for governor and U.S. Senate. But in the August primary, Puerto Ricans were part of a fast-growing Democratic coalition in the Orlando-area that saw victories almost across the board, including the election of politicians of Puerto Rican descent to the Orange County Commission and property appraiser.

“We’re still a newer population and there’s still persuasion work to be done,” said U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat and the first person of Puerto Rican descent elected from Florida. “But we have political power now, and we have elected officials in all levels of government and that’s evidence that we are mobilizing folks.”

Biden, though, is running behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama with Latino voters, according to polls. Trump has been boosted by his support from Miami-area Cubans, where his campaign is focused on an anti-socialist message that resonates. His approval rating, though, is underwater among Puerto Ricans.

Richard Gonzalez’s life was upended “360 degrees” by Hurricane Maria, he said, and every day remains a challenge. He left his kids in Puerto Rico to find a job in Florida after the casino that employed him closed.

Gonzalez, 55, was troubled by Trump’s response to the storm and had his opinions solidified by the administration’s handling of the coronavirus. But he thinks Democrats have been content to let Trump “drown himself” instead of bringing Puerto Ricans closer to the party.

“They have wasted the opportunity," said Gonzalez, who now lives in Brandon and works as a dealer at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. “They have not realized the value the Puerto Rican vote has in this community. Make us fall in love with them.”

Biden lately has redoubled his efforts. He released a detailed policy plan to rebuild Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storms and the earthquake that shattered the territory. Puerto Ricans living on the mainland work the phones three days a week, calling Osceola Hispanics using their 787 island area codes, which the campaign said has been effective. Meanwhile, outside groups, backed by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, are running Spanish-language ads that hit Trump on his Maria response.

One of Biden’s first campaign stops in Florida since the pandemic started was a Hispanic Heritage Month event last month in Kissimmee, the heart of the state’s Puerto Rican population. The rally was heavy on theatrics. It featured singer Ricky Martin and actress Eva Longoria. Biden played the pop sensation Despacito by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi for the crowd on his cell phone. He also made a substantial announcement: Biden said he “personally believes statehood” for the island is best if Puerto Ricans want it.

Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican who has consistently drawn more support from Hispanics than others in his party, said Trump’s bluster is “clearly a different approach than I would take.” Still, he said Republicans have a chance to win over Puerto Ricans like they have Cuban Americans by appealing to their shared conservative values.

“The one positive for the Puerto Ricans is the federal government has shown up,” Scott said. “It always seems like it takes longer than it should, but they have showed up.”

Democrats would dispute that notion, pointing to Trump’s repeated attempts to block additional disaster aid for the island and the slower response compared to mainland natural disasters. Last year, Trump claimed on Twitter that Puerto Rico received $91 billion, “more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before.” The actual figure was closer to $41 billion, while the federal government estimates it spent $120 billion on Hurricane Katrina recovery. He has also blamed political corruption on the island for Puerto Rico’s problems, an accusation that carries some merit.

Trump’s posture, though, has changed as the election has neared. Last month, with Florida’s presidential race tightening, Trump announced the release of $13 billion in aid for Puerto Rico to fix damage caused three years ago. He declared himself “the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico.”

“The treatment we were given after Maria, it was unjust,” said Gonzalez, “and it has ignited the flame that will motivate us to vote and I think it will make a big difference, at least in Florida in these elections.”

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