As Puerto Ricans’ numbers grow in Florida, Hurricane Maria becomes pivotal campaign issue

"We're a highly motivated vote, because Trump and the Republican Congress failed Puerto Rico."

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., attends a news conference in the CVC with House democrats to call for immediate assistance for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on September 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., attends a news conference in the CVC with House democrats to call for immediate assistance for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on September 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Puerto Ricans hit by Hurricane Maria often complained that they were not treated by the Trump administration like full-fledged U.S. citizens. Now thousands have relocated to Florida after fleeing the devastating storm and are preparing to flex their political clout at the ballot box this November.

Puerto Ricans who leave the island are eligible to vote as soon as they establish residency on the U.S. mainland, making them an immediate potential political force in the midterms.

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The hurricane in Puerto Rico nine months ago has become a major campaign issue across Florida, home to a large Puerto Rican diaspora community that has grown substantially since the category four storm ravaged the island last September, which sustained $100 billion in damage.

For many new arrivals — and for their family members already established in the United States — the  federal government’s handling of the hurricane recovery back in Puerto Rico will determine which party they register for, and how they vote in November.

“We’re a highly motivated vote, because Trump and the Republican Congress failed the island,” U.S. Representative Darren Soto (D-FL) told ThinkProgress in an interview at his office on Capitol Hill.

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“It used to be difficult to explain the difference between Democrats and Republicans with new arrivals from the island. Now we simply ask, ‘Do you support or oppose Donald Trump?’” he said.

“You can imagine how many people say they oppose. ‘So you’re a Democrat.’  And it makes the decision much more crystallized now.”

Soto, who represents the Orlando area, the epicenter of Florida’s Puerto Rican community, told ThinkProgress there are more island-born Puerto Ricans in his district than in any other state.

Last September’s storm is a big political issue even beyond the state’s boundaries. The two major party candidates for Florida’s Senate seat, Democrat Bill Nelson and his Republican challenger Rick Scott, the state’s governor, have traveled several times to campaign events in Puerto Rico, in hopes of securing support from Puerto Rican voters in their state.

In April, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello announced the launch of a new political organization to influence the November 2018 midterms, with the express aim of rallying the Puerto Rican vote in Florida. And the Democratic National Committee announced last week that it was giving Florida Democrats $100,000 to broaden outreach efforts in the Puerto Rican community.

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Among the most bitter memories for many new arrivals is the image of President Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Ricans who had hoped for greater compassion and more substantive relief from the federal government.

US President Donald Trump throws a paper towel roll as he visits the Cavalry Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017.
CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN
US President Donald Trump throws a paper towel roll as he visits the Cavalry Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN

Trump gave his administration’s relief efforts a score of a perfect 10, but Soto says the relief effort was sorely lacking. “There was $90 billion in damage and only $15 billion of it was funded,” Soto said.

There was a high price to pay for the inadequacy of the aid effort. This past week, a study showed that the human toll from Maria was far more devastating than the public had been told. The research conducted by Harvard University found that deaths from the storm numbered nearly 5,000 — many times more than the official toll of 64.

Many of those who died survived Maria’s landfall and its immediate aftermath, but succumbed to illness in the subsequent months, often as a secondary effect of the power loss.

The name of the group founded by Governor Rosello, Poder Puerto Rico, means Puerto Rico Power in Spanish, a double-entendre calling attention to the source of the biggest heartache over months. Even now, officials say power won’t be fully restored on the island for another two months. 

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And despite $3.8 billion in repairs to the power grid, officials said last week as a new hurricane season commenced, that Puerto Rico could be plunged back into darkness if another storm hits.

It’s hard to say exactly how many people have arrived in the state since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Researchers extrapolate from travel records and school registrations — an inexact method at best. Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) in January estimated that 300,000 people had arrived from the island, and the numbers have continued to increase since then.

The Pew Research Center found that the number of Puerto Ricans in Florida has increased from around half a million in 2000 to more than a million in 2014. Soto said the Orlando community had already seen an influx of thousands of people each month fleeing a brutal recession on the island. The hurricane only accelerated the exodus.

“Maria or no Maria, we’ve had like a thousand families a month moving in for some time now, although we’re spread out throughout the state — unlike the Cuban community which is pretty much 90 percent focused in Miami-Dade and Broward (counties),” he said.

“In a state where the last several presidential and gubernatorial elections have been decided by less than one point, any changes can make a big difference. This is a state where Obama won twice by one point and Trump won by one point,” the Democrat said.

The treatment of people on the island of Puerto Rico is just one major campaign issue related to the deadly storm. Another is a lack of resources for those who have fled the island.

At present, FEMA funding for a program to provide temporary housing is scheduled to run out at the end of this month. That gives families just enough time to get through the school year before they have to figure out what their futures will hold.

Soto explained that the program provides most people temporary lodgings in hotels. “They’re living in, most of them, in one room hotels, and they have been for months,” he said. “It’s a shame despite all our best efforts, the Trump administration never approved lease vouchers, which would have been far more humane,” Soto said.

New arrivals also are given two months of food stamps, and have access to food pantry rations. Health care, he said for the most part has been reasonaby easy to access.

“Those who arrived as late as January could sign up for the Affordable Care Act. Many of them have enrolled in Medicaid or Medicare if they were eligible,” Soto said.

With respect to employment, the new arrivals for the most part have no problem finding work, but often find that service sector jobs don’t always cover the high costs of life in a touristy area like central Florida.

What’s not entirely clear, with the start of a new hurricane season this past week, is how many displaced Puerto Ricans will stay in the United States, and how many will return to the island.

Once FEMA housing funds elapse at the end of the month, “all of them will be eligible to get a plane ticket home, but many of them will want to stay,” Soto said.

“We will do the hard work of working with our faith leaders and our corporate and non profit sector, and families across the district to find housing for everyone as soon as we can.”