Puerto Ricans, reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, are heading to Florida in droves and the numbers prove it — more than 143,000 people from Puerto Rico have arrived in Florida since the Category 4 storm struck the island in September, and even more are expected to come to the Sunshine State in the coming months.
Florida, the U.S. territory’s closest American neighbor, has seen a large increase of Puerto Ricans since the storm, which left many people on the island either without power or totally homeless.
Those numbers are likely to rise, too — on Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it planned to offer short-term relocation for displaced Puerto Ricans to shelters in Florida and New York.
The plan to airlift thousands of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. comes after a request from Gov. Ricardo Rossello and is the first in the agency’s history.
FEMA would foot the entire bill — the agency said it intends to pay for flights to and from the mainland for people requesting the service.
While many Puerto Ricans continue their mass exodus to the mainland U.S., the situation on the island continues to remain dire. Approximately 59 percent of the island, which is home to 3.4 million people, still has no electricity, nearly two months after the storm ravaged its antiquated power grid.
Tens of thousands of homes don’t even have roofs.
Florida continues to open its arms to Puerto Ricans, with Gov. Rick Scott leading the way for the Sunshine State as it prepares to become home for the homeless and needy.
On Thursday, Scott directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) to activate the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) to Level 2.
By upping the level of the SEOC, the State Emergency Response Team (SERT) has activated, enhancing coordination between federal, state and local emergency management agencies.
“This will ensure that local, state and federal agencies are all working together and enhance the delivery of resources at the state’s disaster relief centers at Miami and Orlando international airports as they prepare to assist more families with services like crisis counseling, educational resources, job placement services, medical services and help getting housing and drivers licenses,” Scott said in a statement.
Puerto Rican officials have been looking to Florida for guidance on bouncing back from catastrophic hurricanes since the state is familiar with natural disaster recovery.
Last week, Gov. Scott made a second visit to Puerto Rico after Rossello said he wanted to meet in part because of Scott’s work to help Florida’s speedy recovery from hurricanes.
“Given your experience in managing natural disasters, your guidance on restoring energy would be greatly appreciated,” Rosello wrote in a letter to Scott.
Rosello and Scott spent last Friday morning in a roundtable meeting to determine ways Puerto Rico could expedite power restoration to the island.
There is a possibility Florida-based companies could be recruited to help turn the lights back on in Puerto Rico. Florida companies are arguably more experienced in restoring electricity and some Florida power companies, like Florida Power & Light, have already said they were ready to assist in restoration efforts if necessary.
Last week, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority CEO Ricardo Ramos requested additional support from Florida and New York-based companies in a letter to power industry groups Edison Electric Institute and American Public Power Association.
Making life in Florida easier for displaced Puerto Ricans has been at the top of Scott’s priority list since Hurricane Maria struck — Florida state colleges and universities now allow students displaced by Maria to receive in-state tuition, which is a fraction of the cost of regular tuition rates. Last month, Gov. Scott and the Florida Department of Education also announced they would be waiving educator certificate application fees for teachers hoping to work in the wake of the monster storm.