Today marks four years since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving in its wake months of misery for those affected by lack of power, access to food and medicine, collapsed homes, and lives changed forever. As a Puerto Rican, and as a sociologist who studies migration, this anniversary has deep personal and professional significance. My parents lived in Puerto Rico at the time and experienced nature’s tortuous wrath. For them, and for so many Puerto Ricans, the storm transformed their lives. For many years my parents split their time between Puerto Rico and Central Florida; the storm cemented the decision to sell their home and move stateside permanently. Thousands of Puerto Ricans made a similar decision, many settling in Central Florida.
As a sociologist, I have spent the last 25 years studying the lives of Puerto Ricans who move to the continental United States, examining what challenges they face upon relocation and how adaptation experiences shape their decisions on where to call home. With funding from the National Science Foundation and a partnership with the non-profit organization Mujeres Restauradas Por Dios, I assembled a research team from the University of South Florida to study how post-disaster migrants fared upon their arrival and settlement in the Tampa Bay region (see www.puertoricanmigration.com for more information). Our work found that compared to life just before the hurricane, post-disaster migrants experienced more difficulty accessing necessities such as food and clothing, were more likely to face health care challenges, experienced greater hardship finding affordable and safe housing, and struggled to find employment and achieve financial security. Of the sample of 146 that we surveyed, 27 had resettled in Puerto Rico, many of them indicating that difficulties learning the language was influential in their decision-making.
Of course, on top of these adjustment difficulties came the COVID-19 pandemic. This introduced a series of hardships for many, including lost wages, furloughs, and a decline in self-rated physical and mental health, among other deleterious outcomes. For post-disaster migrants, COVID-19 challenges piled onto the long-lasting effects of the trauma of experiencing the hurricane and the hardships that endured post-disaster and post-migration. The pandemic also presented barriers to their process of societal integration. For some, the public health stay-at-home orders reminded them of being homebound in the aftermath of the hurricane. Now, as we come upon the fourth anniversary of this disaster, many will likely relive the traumas they went through and hope that they are not caught in another storm like it. In short, the lives of those we studied changed in critical ways — for some, it opened new opportunities for better education for their children and access to health care, but for others, a process of downward mobility ensued; they had to start from scratch.
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My own parents eventually found a buyer for their house; their closing date led them back to Puerto Rico to pack up their home right as the pandemic began. They arrived to a home that had been shuttered for some months given the earthquakes that affected Puerto Rico in January and February of 2020. During this time mold had accumulated in parts of their house, which my father inadvertently ingested while packing his home office. The injury to his lungs accelerated the onset of a then-undiagnosed pulmonary illness that led to his untimely death just seven and a half months after my parents sold their house and left Puerto Rico. I often wonder, if Maria had never happened, would my parents still have their home, and would my father still be alive? Maria did not kill my father; nor did it directly cause the hardships that many Puerto Ricans faced after migrating to the continental U.S. However, it did change the trajectory of many Puerto Ricans’ lives.
My research team will continue our study of Puerto Rican post-disaster migrants to see if migration-related changes were ultimately for the better. For now, there are actions that local and state governments can take to lessen the challenges that they confront. Free English language classes is certainly a beginning. But transitional assistance for migrants and other climate refugees will be critical for long term settlement and full societal integration. More broadly, actions to mitigate climate change are crucial to avoid the inevitable treks that climate refugees will undergo as current weather patterns show no signs of abating.
Elizabeth Aranda, Ph.D. is a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, Florida Chapter Co-Leader of the Scholars Strategy Network, and author of Emotional Bridges to Puerto Rico.