Orlando (AFP) – Cristina Sanchez is one of thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing their hurricane-ravaged island for Florida, a mass migration set to shape the southern US state as much as migrants from communist Cuba in the late 20th century.
Sanchez left the island with three suitcases, her small dog — and no plans to return.
As her flight departed the capital San Juan, she glanced out the window at what she was leaving behind: a sun-drenched Caribbean island turned into a hellhole by Hurricane Maria.
On September 20, powerful Maria tore across Puerto Rico, destroying homes, shattering the island’s rickety power grid and phone network, and leaving its 3.4 million residents in the dark and incommunicado. Many remain so today.
“It’s a relief to be off the island and to be away from where everything is so difficult,” said Sanchez, a 43 year-old bilingual school teacher.
Chico, her Shih Tzu, was given a sedative and slept at her feet during the flight.
After the hurricane, Sanchez’s home was left without running water or electricity. A diabetic, she could not keep her life-saving insulin refrigerated without power.
“I’m literally fleeing to get away from it, from everything that’s going on there,” she told AFP.
“It takes its toll emotionally and mentally.”
The official hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico stands at 58, though large areas were isolated for weeks after the storm — and news reports now place the toll as high as 500.
Since Puerto Rico is a US possession, its residents — known as ‘boricuas’ — are US citizens and have no immigration obstacles.
– Destination: Orlando –
Sanchez headed to Orlando, a central Florida city best known for its amusement parks, including Disney World and Universal Studios.
Central Florida, especially the Orlando area, has long attracted Puerto Rican immigrants fleeing the island’s economic woes.
Since the hurricane struck, at least 212,000 people have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida — mainly central Florida, according to figures from the State Emergency Response Team (SERT).
Around one million Puerto Ricans now live in Florida, mostly in the central Tampa-Orlando corridor.
At Orlando’s airport Sanchez went straight to one of three special “Welcome Centers” set up by the state government for Puerto Rican immigrants.
There she received information on how to start her new life, how to get a temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing subsidy, and how to get a job.
Sanchez was optimistic that she’d be able to find a…