One year ago this September, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the small Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. The Category 4 hurricane left destruction and turmoil in its wake, causing as much as $94 billion in damage to the island and approximately 2,975 fatalities according to the most recent estimates. Since then, there has been an exodus from Puerto Rico to The U.S. mainland of people seeking to escape the economic depression which plagues the island.
The Economic Crisis Leading to an Exodus from Puerto Rico
The damage caused by the Hurricane compounded an already desperate situation for Puerto Rico, which at the time of the storm faced $71 billion in debts and $49 billion in pension liabilities. The financial crisis in Puerto Rico had been in the making since the 1990’s when the island’s government began to borrow billions of dollars in order to pay its bills. The government borrowed from investors and U.S. banks through the sale of bonds until they racked up an enormous debt, which in 2015 surpassed the island’s GDP. The situation went further south in 2013 when bond prices fell and hundreds of millions of dollars in Puerto Rican capital was wiped out.
The faltering economy in Puerto Rico during the early 2000’s incited an early exodus from Puerto Rico by a certain demographic. “Between 2006 and 2013, there was what you could call a brain drain of the island,” explains Jennifer Hinojosa, Data Center Coordinator at the Hunter College Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “Young professionals chose to leave the island in search of education and employment elsewhere. A huge reason for this out-migration was that there were no jobs.”
Hurricane Maria’s Aftermath
When Hurricane Maria came pummeling down upon the island in September of 2017, 44.3 percent of the island’s population was already living in poverty and the unemployment rate was at 10.1 percent. 155 mph winds tore through the island, floodwater more than 30 inches deep ran through neighborhoods, for a long period of time, 100 percent of the island’s population lost electricity and access to food and water was limited for most.
The situation looks dire for many Puerto Ricans who are now trying to rebuild their lives and cope with the severe infrastructural damage caused by the storm. For example, after the storm, some towns had to deal with 80 to 90 percent of their structures destroyed. With long-term damage making recovery efforts slow and difficult, more and more Puerto Ricans are faced with the tough decision of leaving their island to find opportunity elsewhere.
Hinojosa weighed in on this situation explaining that “when Maria hit, everyone was leaving, regardless of socioeconomic status. It was more of a free fall, we’re talking about professionals and low-skilled workers alike. The impact of this was that you had people who couldn’t find jobs in Puerto Rico during the economic crisis period and then you add on top of this another tragedy like Hurricane Maria, the result was that the number of those leaving the island significantly increased and the probability of those who left returning to Puerto Rico became pretty unlikely.” Hinojosa and the Director for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, Edwin Melendez further elaborated on the post-Maria exodus in their report, “Estimates of Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico”.
The government of Puerto Rico estimates that by the end of 2018, 200,000 residents will have left the territory for good. In addition, according to Hinojosa’s and Melendez’s predictions, 114,000 to 213,000 Puerto Rican residents will continue to leave the island each year in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. These numbers are disheartening to those who hope to see the economic situation improve in the country.
The primary reason given in the Centro’s report to explain the exodus from Puerto Rico is that there are not enough jobs to found on the island. The Hurricane dealt a heavy blow to infrastructure in key areas like the country’s electrical system, transportation system and communications network, all of which directly impact the commerce and service sector.
What’s Next for Puerto Rico?
Aside from the immediate destruction and crisis brought about by the Hurricane, the impact of the storm is predicted to influence the island’s economic future for years to come. Some reports suggest that the damage done by Maria could lower Puerto Rican incomes by 21 percent over the next 15 years totaling $180 billion in lost economic output.
Looking towards what’s to come in the future, Hinojosa expressed that, “it’s all dependent on what happens in Puerto Rico. If young people are able to find jobs in The U.S. they will pick up and leave. If the government wants to keep their labor force intact they will have to think about creative ways to better the economy. For many Puerto Ricans, if they find a job in the U.S., and achieve some level of stability, they are going to stay in the U.S.”
The future for the tragedy-stricken Puerto Rican people is uncertain, but what is evident is that at the start of hurricane season this June, thousands of people remained without permanent homes, electricity or employment. In order for people to stay on the island and prevent a continuing exodus from Puerto Rico, major reconstruction efforts must be undertaken so that the country has the opportunity and resources to thrive.
– Clarke Hallum