PATILLAS, Puerto Rico – Jan Carlo Pérez’s family has a farm in Patillas, Puerto Rico. It’s a town of lush green hillside forests known as the Caribbean island’s “emerald of the south.” But right now Patillas – close to where Hurricane Maria made landfall in September – is a struggling disaster casualty.
“You can see the barn is completely destroyed,” Pérez says during a walk around his property this month during a light drizzle. “We had fruit trees over there, the star fruit, the bread fruit. It’s all, it’s all gone….”
Pérez recalls Maria's terrifying winds were like "a whistle. Some places call it the devil’s whistle. But it was actually like a woman screaming. Like: Aaaggghhh!”
That devil’s scream demolished many of Patillas’ trees – and homes and businesses, like Pérez’s fruit tree and small livestock farm. His house came out OK. But like the rest of Patillas, it still has no electricity or running water. Gasoline lines are still long and cell phone signals are still scarce. The town’s future feels bleak.
“It’s gonna be like two or three years, or more, to build it like it was,” Pérez says.
Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, Pérez is a U.S. citizen. And he admits the temptation to leave the island for the U.S. mainland is strong. He knows he’d do well in, say, South Florida: He’s a bilingual teacher, fluent in Spanish and English. And he’s entrepreneurial.
“My uncle, he lives in Hialeah,” Pérez mentions. “He has called me. Says, ‘You can come here.’ ”
But Pérez declines. The big, amiable man who coaches kids’ basketball in Patillas wants to stay.
“I personally, I don’t believe in leaving,” he says. “I believe in Puerto Rico.”
But Pérez knows he’s in the minority in Patillas – if not the whole island. Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico was suffering a catastrophic economic crisis. Now, locals estimate some 60 percent of Patillas’ residents favor leaving.
And that includes Lourdes Cosme – Pérez’s wife.
Cosme admires her husband’s devotion to Puerto Rico. She’s an accountant who helps run her parents’ hardware store, one of the few shops open in Patillas right now. But in a debate so many Puerto Rican households are having these days, she questions whether staying is best for their two young children.
“People feel hopeless,” she says. “With the hurricane we wake up every morning worried about, Will we fail? I have two friends, they are doctors. They took the decision to leave Puerto Rico two weeks ago.”
At the Patillas middle school where Cosme’s husband teaches, the librarian has made that decision too.
Melinda Arcaya already felt robbed of much of her pension by Puerto Rico’s financial collapse. Now, with no air conditioning at night, her arms and face bear large mosquito bite sores.
“I feel bad because this island is my home,” Arcaya says. “But Puerto Rico is a disaster. I may go to Florida, to Orlando. I’ll take any job I can find.”
Florida is indeed the choice destination for most migrating Puerto Ricans. Hundreds of thousands came to the state due to the economic crisis. Florida’s government estimates close to 75,000 have already arrived since the hurricane.
Many are also in demand: nurses, engineers, teachers. And that’s spawning a new industry in Puerto Rico.
“That’s our main purpose: to find them a job over there in Florida,” says Maytte Texidor, a San Juan attorney who represents the Puerto Rico human resources firm JHR Services. It’s now branching out to place skilled Puerto Ricans with Florida companies. Especially in South Florida.
“There’s more professional people going to South Florida than Central Florida,” Texidor says. “I know gynecologists and anesthesiologists that have moved to South Florida because they get paid more. Or we know that Fort Myers needs skilled workers in construction.”
Grisel Robles just got a nursing degree in Loíza, Puerto Rico. But the hurricane wrecked her property and she can’t find a job there. So she, her paramedic husband and 5-month-old daughter came to North Lauderdale, Florida – helped by a local diaspora effort, Adopt a Puerto Rican Family.
“I came here with nothing,” says Robles. “We lost everything in Puerto Rico.
“Emotionally we were destroyed. But since Maria I have no time to think; we just reacted. Too many people are losing their work in Puerto Rico because of the hurricane.”
Back in Patillas, Pérez hopes to convince his wife to bet on Puerto Rico’s comeback. He has lived on the U.S. mainland before, but he knows the island’s revival will require younger, skilled people like them.
“I have lived in Arkansas, in Mississippi,” Pérez says. “I know it’s gonna be hard here. We have to start all over again. But I don’t want to leave Puerto Rico. It’s like a paradise.”
But for now, a paradise abandoned – for Florida.