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Puerto Ricans who fled to Florida from storm face new storm

By MIKE SCHNEIDERAugust 29, 2019
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FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2018, file photo, Jose Santiago, a Puerto Rican evacuee after Hurricane Maria, stands in a temporary home in Orlando. Like Santiago, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria to escape the devastation of the storm. Now, they’re facing a potentially destructive storm in the very place they sought refuge. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
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FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2018, file photo, Jose Santiago, a Puerto Rican evacuee after Hurricane Maria, stands in a temporary home in Orlando. Like Santiago, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria to escape the devastation of the storm. Now, they’re facing a potentially destructive storm in the very place they sought refuge. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Jose Santiago was worried about his two adult daughters as Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico midweek.

But when the island dodged a direct hit from the storm, his daughters became increasingly concerned about the direction of the hurricane — straight for Florida where Santiago had moved after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September 2017.

“One of them told me, ‘Daddy, this isn’t going to hit Puerto Rico directly, but now I’m worried about you,’” said Santiago, who drives cars for an auction house in Orlando.

Like Santiago, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria to escape the devastation of the Category 4 storm. Now, they’re facing a potentially destructive storm in the very place where they sought refuge.

Living through Hurricane Maria taught Santiago the importance of preparing for a storm, and he has purchased a generator, canned food and water. He’s betting Dorian won’t be as bad.

“Maria was like almost 200 miles per hour (322 kph). It was scary with the noise and stuff, and the wind,” said Santiago, who exaggerated a bit — maximum sustained winds were 155 mph (249 kph) by the time the storm reached Puerto Rico. “I don’t think Dorian is going to be a third of what Maria was.”

Hurricane Maria was a Category 4 storm by the time it hit Puerto Rico, leaving a death toll of around 3,000. Many Puerto Ricans who had been recovering from Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier, were left with a power grid that was essentially destroyed and a lack of tap water and cellphone service.

What had been a steady flow of residents leaving the island because of economic hardship became a gush after the storm. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates around 130,000 Puerto Ricans moved away between July 2017 and July 2018.

The Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida estimated that as many as 50,000 of them settled in Florida after Hurricane Maria. Florida now has more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans, and has surpassed New York as the state with the largest number of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland.

During Hurricane Dorian’s brush with Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Idalis Fernandez worried about her cousins and aunts on the island, who lost power but they were otherwise fine. Like Santiago’s daughters, they were more concerned about her living in Florida.

“They’ve already called me twice, asking me, ‘What are you going to do?’” said Fernandez, who moved to Orlando after Hurricane Maria and now works as a server.

By Wednesday evening, Fernandez had already purchased her food supplies and packed everything into the fridge. She had removed chairs from the porch of her apartment and secured other items.

Her 12-year-old son, Alexander, was worried they would be without power for months, like they were in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

“I tell him he needs to be calm because I’m here and we have everything here,” Fernandez said. “I tell him, ‘Just wait and pray.’”

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