Will hurricanes compel more Puerto Rico residents to move to U.S. mainland?

As Puerto Rico begins to pick up the pieces after two major hurricanes, the looming question is whether the monthslong recovery may compel more residents to abandon the already economically distressed island.

Those residents, who are U.S. citizens, could head north to the mainland, including the Lehigh Valley, which is home to thousands of Puerto Rican descent.

“I would not be surprised if it happens,” said Mary Colon, board president of the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley. “Culturally, our families tend to gravitate to the extended family in time of crisis, and obviously this is a time of crisis.”

The driving wind and rain from hurricanes Irma and Maria have left Puerto Ricans largely without electricity as well as little or no ability to communicate with family members in the U.S.

The massive cleanup effort, expected to cost billions of dollars, is compounding other significant concerns on the island, which is home to 3.4 million people.

They include a double-digit unemployment rate, a looming shortfall in Medicaid funding, a bankrupt electric company and stricter federal oversight of the island's already debt-ridden finances.

Some think the combination of problems might be too much for some to bear.

“It's a recipe for a lot of people to feel that they're hopeless and they need to come to the [mainland] United States," said U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, D-N.Y., whose Brooklyn-area district has a significant Puerto Rican constituency.

Velazquez, who is awaiting news about relatives on the island, warned that if pending federal legislation addressing the economic problems isn't coupled with federal hurricane relief, "we're going to have an unprecedented number of people who will continue to leave the island."

The Lehigh Valley has seen a steady increase in the number of people identifying as Puerto Rican.

In Lehigh County, 43,445 people — 12.2 percent of the population — identified as Puerto Rican in a 2015 community demographic survey. That’s up from 34,738 people, or 10.1 percent, in 2010. In Northampton County, 20,026 residents — 6.7 percent — identified as Puerto Rican in 2015, an increase from 17,564 Puerto Ricans, or 6 percent, in 2010.

No matter how bad things are, Colon said, leaving won’t be easy.

“I know our families will be looking out for what’s in their best interest, but it’s hard to leave home,” Colon said. “It’s hard to leave something you’ve worked hard to maintain.”

Students may be among those relocating, Colon said. Schools on the island largely are without electricity, damaged by the storm or used as shelters for displaced Puerto Ricans.

Those students would be welcome at Bethlehem Area School District, Superintendent Joseph Roy said Friday. Many of the district’s students have Puerto Rican ties, and may play host to displaced family members.

“It would be reasonable that people might send kids up, even if they stayed down to rebuild,” said Roy, who posted a letter on the district’s website in which he extended his thoughts and prayers to families and employees with relatives in Puerto Rico and said school counselors are available.

If families decide to leave, the American Red Cross Eastern Pennsylvania Region will help them relocate, spokesman David Skutnik said. The agency partners with other Lehigh Valley agencies to help families find housing if they are displaced by fires or other disasters.

“We would do the same thing with a hurricane victim relocating to the area as we do for a home fire victim,” Skutnik said.

An interested person would need documentation, such as identification that includes an address in the storm zone, to qualify for relocation help, Skutnik said. They could request help over the phone.

In Florida, home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, officials are worried that an influx of islanders could strain services.

"We've anticipated we'll see tens of thousands of folks here at least temporarily," said U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., the first Puerto Rican congressman from the state. "Many were I'm sure already contemplating the move, but this will push them over the top."

Soto has been working with democratic Florida state Rep. Robert Asencio, who represents parts of West Miami-Dade and Kendall, and who warned that the arrivals are "going to definitely impact and put a strain on existing services."

"It may even result in the state of Florida requesting more money to the federal government for relief," he added.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he mentioned the potential for a large migration of people to Vice President Mike Pence and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, but that it shouldn't be a big concern.

"They're American citizens, they can move anywhere they want," he said.

Meanwhile, Federico de Jesus, a Puerto Rican Democratic political consultant in Washington, D.C., who advises nonprofit groups and other entities on the island's affairs, said that despite the devastation, there may be a "silver lining," because when hurricanes hit, "all of these issues come to the fore. People who don't think about Puerto Rico in D.C. start to think about it."

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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