Members of the US military deliver supplies to victims of Hurricane Maria, in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico.
Members of the US military deliver supplies to victims of Hurricane Maria, in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. Thais Llorca

Adios Puerto Rico - 500,000 people expected to leave

AS MANY as 500,000 people - 14% of the population - could leave Puerto Rico for good in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria's destruction, the Centre for Puerto Rican Studies suggests.

A month after the Category 4 storm made landfall with winds of up to 250kmh, about 90% of the island remains without electricity and hundreds of thousands of people are scrambling to find fuel, food, clean water and access to medical services.

Florida and New York are expected to be most affected by the exodus.

The Trump administration has been trying to fight off accusations it has done way too little to help Puerto Rico, especially compared to how it dealt with powerful storms in Florida and Texas.

The exodus would have a devastating impact on the island's already stagnant and flailing economy.

A report published by the centre at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, suggests between 114,000 and 213,000 residents will leave the island over the next 12 months.

It suggests that by 2019, up to 470,335 residents could have left for the US mainland, mostly to the states of Florida and New York.

"In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation,” says the report.

"Our projections indicate that Florida is the state most likely to be affected by the exodus.”

President Donald Trump, who has engaged in a series of back-and-forth insults with the mayor of the capital, San Juan, has said the island should do more to help itself.

He also said the claims of mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who said her residents had been left to die, were politically motivated.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week it had 1700 personnel in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Around 2600 FEMA staff remain deployed to Hurricane Harvey, nearly two months after that storm hit the Gulf Coast of the mainland US.

As emergency officials appeal to islanders not to drink water that may be contaminated, CNN said 35% of households still did not have access to safe drinking water.

Professor Edwin Melendez, the centre's director and co-author of the report, said the depopulation they estimated for Puerto Rico, using an econometric model of the costs of storms over the last 60 years, would be similar to that experienced by New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Today, the Louisiana city's population is 20% less than it was before Katrina hit.

He told The Independent the major driver for people leaving Puerto Rico was employment opportunities. He said following Maria, infrastructure had been badly damaged, hotels were not hiring people and around 80% of agricultural crops had been destroyed.

He said others researchers had found Maria could lower Puerto Rican incomes by up to 20% over the next 15 years, a cost of $180 billion to the island's economy.

We will need to wait for the release of data on employment and net movement of passengers in the months after Hurricane Maria to fully assess the exodus of Puerto Rico residents to stateside communities,” his report adds.

"Yet the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the population exodus and ensuing unemployment in New Orleans offer an example of what lies ahead for Puerto Rico.”

- Andrew Buncombe, The Independent