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Florida, other states brace for exodus from Puerto Rico

It has been a trying week for Erika Rodriguez, who continues to reach out to family members in Puerto Rico struggling in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

With much of the island without power, and short of fuel and clean water, Rodriguez wants her family to relocate to the U.S. mainland while authorities in Puerto Rico try to rebuild an already fragile infrastructure struck by one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. But she’s having a lot of trouble trying to get to the island to retrieve them.

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“We’re trying to find something but there are no flights,” said Rodriguez of Satellite Beach, Florida. “We’re calling around. One of my friends was trying to leave from Orlando and at the last minute the flight was canceled. They’re also saying that they might be able to get you in but there are no guarantees that (they) can get you back,” Rodriguez said.

In the established Puerto Rican enclaves of cities around the country, people like Rodriguez are making room for relatives whose lives on the island have been washed away. So, too, are city officials bracing for the influx of evacuees desperate to flee Puerto Rico for shelter with friends and family.

People walk next to a gas station flooded and damaged by the impact of Hurricane Maria, which hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, September 20, 2017. The strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years destroyed hundreds of homes, knocked out power across the entire island and turned some streets into raging rivers in an onslaught that could plunge the U.S. territory deeper into financial crisis.

It’s too early to know how many of the island’s 3.4 million residents will try to leave or just how ready communities in the mainland U.S. are to absorb them. If migration patterns hold, much of the influx will be to the South.

A Pew Research Center study shows that as the island was in the early throes of its current economic crisis and bankruptcy, about 48 percent people leaving Puerto Rico moved to the South, including 31 percent who relocated to Florida.

More than a million people of Puerto Rican descent live and work in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World. Monse Vargas, the president of the non-profit La Casa de Puerto Rico, said preparations must be made for temporary housing, job training and other social services should families there take in evacuees.

“There are people who are trying to come. They have family in Central Florida or they’re coming here to buy supplies to take back. But there is a lot of desperation. Some people lost their houses and want to get out, even though right now it is extremely difficult,” Vargas said.

Jackie Cruz of Port St. Lucie, Florida, said she is more than willing to bring all of her family — including her mother, aunt, sister, her husband’s children, grandchildren and others — to the mainland.

“We’re all trying to get together with my sister in Jersey to figure out how we can bring them here. They won’t leave anyone behind,” Cruz said. “We’re trying to convince them being here is better than being where they are. They don’t know anything outside of Puerto Rico.”

Officials in Florida and other states were readying resources. Florida will assist with “whatever is needed, both in Puerto Rico and in Florida,” said Kerri Wyland, a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has asked the state’s public colleges and universities to allow students displaced by the storm in Puerto Rico to pay tuition at an in-state rate.

New Jersey, which sent a task force and resources to Florida, South Carolina and Texas in response to hurricanes earlier this month, is preparing to send aid to Puerto Rico as soon as the Federal Emergency Management Agency tells them what’s needed.

Meanwhile, the situation in Puerto Rico, where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty rate, grows more dire by the day. While there is no shortage of people who want to fly in with supplies, the logistics are daunting. There are roads that remain impassible because of the damage. Some communities on the island are so remote they are only accessible by helicopter. Loved ones living stateside worry, and feel helpless.

Janice Rivera of Rockaway, New Jersey, said her brother and sister live in Cedra, located in the middle of the island. She said one of her nephews lost the zinc roof of his home. She is worried about the scarcity of food; her family sometimes relies on the avocados, bananas and plantains that fall from the trees. Rivera can’t even send cash through the bank because her siblings can’t access the money.

“They say it will take two months for power to come back, and we worry about what they are going to eat,’’ she said. “What are they going to do, and if they are flooded where are they going to live?”

At the Orlando International Airport, there were two passenger flights — one arriving and one departing for Puerto Rico — scheduled Wednesday. Normally, there are about 26 flights a day between Orlando International and Puerto Rico, said airport spokesman Rod Johnson.

“We do have eight relief flights going out, but that’s it,” he said.

Still, some families have been successful in taking transportation matters into their own hands.

Denisse Quinones, 45 and a Cape Coral, Florida, hairdresser for 15 years, drove to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday to pick up her mother and grandmother. They will join her in a two-bedroom house along with her three children for the next three to six months.

“I booked them an airplane while the hurricane was going on,” Quinones said.

“I just kept calling and calling until finally it happened. But not everyone has that discipline or luxury of being able to do that. I do know others who are coming. They are not retired. They live paycheck to paycheck. They already are struggling. They are trying to get out. They probably will be here. That’s going to be an impact for the community. They’re going to need jobs and assistance and housing. How are we going to accommodate all of that?” Quinones said. “This is a humanitarian crisis.”

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