Recent Earthquakes Exacerbate Exodus From Puerto Rico, But Some People Choose To Stay

Many are fleeing natural disasters and a struggling economy, which is thinning out the island’s middle class and making its population older.

By Joy DiazJanuary 17, 2020 12:33 pm, ,

The massive exodus of Puerto Ricans heading to the mainland started in 2006 with the island’s recession. Then came the government’s debt crisis of 2014 and more people left. After hurricanes Maria and Irma, people also left in droves to the point that the Pew Research Center released a study in 2018 saying the island’s population had reached a 40-year low.

Now, the recent earthquakes that started in December of 2019 and have continued through the first weeks of 2020 are giving Puerto Ricans another reason to leave.

Many are coming to Texas.

So who is left in Puerto Rico now that the middle class is leaving?

One group is formed of people who literally can’t move: people who are too sick, too frail or too old to leave.

“In 2018 about 1 in 5 people in Puerto Rico were 65 years or older,” says Jens Manuel Krogstad, an expert in population with the Pew Research Center. He says that while other groups in the island shrunk over the last decade, the number of elderly people there is on the rise.

Of course, the government class is staying, and people who love their land also refuse to leave. People with means and people in industry are staying, too. The tourism industry, in particular, is one that is still relatively strong.

More than 3 million people visited Puerto Rico in 2018. And that is telling for two reasons: one is that that happened right after the hurricanes; the other reason is that there were about the same number of people visiting the island as the number who permanently live there.

The Coffee Spot is a cafè near a U.S. military beach in Aguadilla on the northwestern tip of Puerto Rico. Willie Florenciani is the owner. He says a lot of families with children are leaving. Speaking in his native Spanish, he says “many worry about how sound school buildings are after the earthquakes.”

And they have reason to worry because one elementary school is among the buildings that recently collapsed.

Although his heart breaks every time a local stops by for their last cappuccino on the island, Florenciani understands why they are leaving. After all, he is a father, too. But he is staying put, for several reasons: for one thing, his family is financially stable; he also employs 20 people.

“So, it’s not just about me,” Florenciani says, over the phone. “These families depend on me.”