Five years ago Tuesday, 155 mph winds uprooted trees, sent powerlines flying and brought Puerto Rico to its knees, as Hurricane Maria — a near Category 5 storm — struck the archipelago. In ensuing months, thousands left Puerto Rico, with the greatest numbers arriving in Florida. For some, mobility meant a temporary reprieve from suffering due to lack of power and water among other essential items; for others the move carried the aspirations of building new lives and homes stateside.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, my colleagues and I set out to understand what happened to Puerto Ricans who came to the Tampa Bay region after the storm. Of the 146 we surveyed, about a quarter eventually resettled in Puerto Rico. They returned to a society where the devastated infrastructure had not been fully restored. In fact, Puerto Rico’s energy grid and the company, LUMA Energy, responsible for power transmission and distribution, have been embroiled in controversy due to the outages affecting areas all over the archipelago.
If another Category 4 or 5 storm were to hit the archipelago today, it is doubtful that Puerto Rico would be in a better place to manage the fallout than it was five years ago. Despite these conditions and the social awareness of them, storm refugees in our study opted to return, sometimes to homes that remained damaged years later. For many, the pull to reunite with their families and their homeland was stronger than the possible advantages of remaining in Florida.
At the heart of these decisions lies the question, what constitutes a home? Sociologist Paolo Boccagni argues that there are three central pillars at the root of perceiving a place as one’s home: control, security, and familiarity. Among our sample of returnees, some were unable to exert control over their lives in Florida.
For example, many faced rejection when trying to find well-remunerated work that matched their expertise. With minimum wage work sometimes the only option, these migrants further lost control over their living environments, forced to settle for undesirable housing. For some, housing was not available at all, forcing them to stay with family or live in their cars. A lack of control thus meant a lack of security. Storm refugees relegated to low-income areas faced neighborhood conditions that led them to feel helplessly unsafe. Without a sense of safety, building a home here became unimaginable for many in our study.
A lack of control and security can at times be mitigated through familiarity — familiar faces, known places, and comfort in routines. Support networks can compensate for the elements of home that go unfulfilled. Yet, while some in our study had social and family ties in the area that indeed fulfilled this function, for others, these networks did not exist, or were too strained to be able to translate into any form of support.
Unable to recreate a sense of home in Florida, returnees opted for the familiarity they felt in Puerto Rico, by reuniting with kin and friends there, and the comfort of places imbued with childhood memories and memories of major life events that brought them joy. Though some have been able to reassert control and security over their lives in Puerto Rico by finding work, or by living in areas they consider safe; many others continue their quest to rebuild home in their homeland due to the scarcity of well-paying jobs and shrinking public services. Thus, they strive to attain stability and financial security, but they continue to feel vulnerable to the very conditions that led to such poor infrastructure and shrinking public services prior to Maria. These social vulnerabilities were compounded by the devastation the storm brought on — destruction that sent them into the revolving door migration process to begin with.
Many of us watched in horror the images from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They broke our hearts. For those who have remained in Florida, they continue to struggle to attain those pillars necessary to call this community home. For those that have returned, to avoid a repetition of Maria’s aftermath, it is imperative that the Puerto Rican government hold key stakeholders of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, particularly its power grid, accountable, while investing more in efforts and resources to expand sustainable power sources that can withstand a storm as strong as Maria. Moreover, the role of the colonial condition of Puerto Rico in the continued poor infrastructure and the lack of advancement in the past five years should be interrogated. Without any measures of accountability or this kind of interrogation, Puerto Rico will again be vulnerable in the face of future storms and the revolving door of migration will be incessantly turned by people in search of home once again.
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Elizabeth Aranda is a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, director of USF’s Immigrant Well-Being Research Center and author of “Emotional Bridges to Puerto Rico.”