Tens of thousands of people fleeing the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought upon Puerto Rico may be the US's newest climate refugees.
A road in Perto Rico, destroyed by the hurricane [Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images]
To say that Hurricane Maria was a disaster in Puerto Rico is probably an understatement. A more accurate description of the aftermath of the hurricane may be “apocalyptic”. Estimates show that the damage from the hurricane may cost the small island nation as much as $45 billion to $95 billion. Apparently, it could take Puerto Rico decades to recover. Much of the island has lost electricity, and it could take months for some areas to regain power. There is also a shortage of food and water, and hospitals are stretched incredibly thin.
Basically, things are bad. It may take a long time for those affected to rebuild—time that they may not have or want to spend. Experts now say that conditions in Puerto Rico may trigger one of the largest mass migrations to the US.
Areas in Puerto Rico that are now without power [Image by NOAA/NASA/Reuters]
Fleeing Puerto Ricans may be joining the ranks of climate refugees such as those who fled southern Louisiana and the islands in Alaska's Bering Strait. Immigration expert Maria Cristina Garcia says that the migration may or may not be permanent. However, it seems likely that there will be a migration to the mainland US.
The permanence of that migration may also depend on the US's relief package. Ricardo Rosselló, governor of Puerto Rico, says that right now, the island is very much dependent on a large-scale relief effort from the US government. The question, however, is if the US government will give as much as necessary to rebuild Puerto Rico.
“If we have that, we can avoid a humanitarian crisis in the United States,” Rosselló says about the relief package. “But if we don’t have that, you will see thousands if not millions of Puerto Ricans flocking to the United States, which will cause a demographic severe problem in Puerto Rico as well as in the United States.”
Of course, the relief efforts may not be the only thing that matters. Government and private entities will also need to consider how much of Puerto Rico can be rebuilt and how much to spend on what.
Tourists wait for a plane out of the island [Photo by Alvin Baez/Reuters]
Because of the very real possibility that climate change will make subsequent hurricanes worse, another thing to consider in rebuilding is building resilience against future disasters. According to Garcia, people who decide to stay on the island may have to move away from the coastlines in order to be more climate resilient.
Though experts say that the devastation left by Hurricane Maria will drive a huge migration, Garcia also says that many among the population will likely stay and rebuild. They'll do so, according to Garcia, with or without government support. However, Hurricane Maria's aftermath will definitely include a significant change in the island's demographic.
There may be 200,000 Puerto Rican climate refugees flocking to the mainland over the coming 12 months. Hopefully, rebuilding efforts as well as efforts to build climate resilience on the island itself will go well, for the sake of those staying behind and those with loved ones still on the island.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!