Who will rebuild Puerto Rico as young professionals leave island after Hurricane Maria?

Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico is accelerating a process of migration of young professionals that could cause a future financial crisis.

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Officials say the government and its partners are providing about 200,000 meals a day for more than 2 million people.
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Damaged homes and downed trees are seen along the coast of Maunabo, Puerto Rico Oct. 2, 2017.(Photo: Carrie Cochran, The Enquirer via the USA TODAY Network)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A graduate student here plans to abandon her thesis project and seek a doctorate in psychology at Stanford or the University of Michigan. A mechanical engineer with Honeywell is leaving for Arizona. And an accountant is asking friends on the U.S. mainland for a place to stay to look for a job.

 

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria left a path of destruction that brought Puerto Rico’s economy to a virtual halt, students, young professionals and many others are seeking to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

And the move has many worried that the youthful  exodus, particularly of educated and accomplished residents, could further hamper the island’s slow recovery from the Sept. 20 storm, and leave a population dominated by older residents.  

Viviana Quiñones, 28, was working on a thesis at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan about community participatory theater as a tool in psychological therapy. But now there’s no theater, no therapy and “school is suspended until further notice,” she said. “We’re trying to find a flight.”

Luis Enrique, left, and his girlfriend Viviana Quiñones, right, both students, discuss their plans to leave Puerto Rico to continue their studies on Oct. 7, 2017. (Photo: Oren Dorell, USA TODAY)

Her boyfriend, Luis Enrique, 26, who works as an accountant and is also a grad student, pointed out that electricity and telecommunications are still down across much of the U.S. territory. ”Nothing is telling us everything will be OK in one or two years. We don’t have that time to waste,” he said. 

The trend of young people leaving Puerto Rico began before Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma striking two weeks earlier. But the overwhelming devastation is now accelerating a process of migration that could trigger a future financial crisis, said Carlos Méndez, an associate administrator at the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital, one of the island’s top medical facilities.

A man fills bottles with water from a stream in Comerio, Puerto Rico, Sept. 30, 2017: Drinking water was scarce. Residents there are forced to use La Plata River for bathing and washing clothes. (Photo: Carrie Cochran, The Enquirer via the USA TODAY Network)

 

“Younger people are leaving the island and older people stay,” Mendez said. “There’s not going to be enough (young workers). Eventually the structure will fail.”

Orlando Lopez de Victoria, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Auxilio Mutuo, said his son Luis works as a mechanical engineer at Honeywell’s aerospace lab in Aguadilla, in the hard-hit northwest corner of the island where power is not expected to be restored for weeks — or months.

Orlando Lopez de Victoria, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Auxilio Mutuo Hospital in San Juan. (Photo: Carrie Cochran, Carrie Cochran, The Enquirer via)

“My son is telling me he’s going to leave the island to go to Arizona or somewhere,” Lopez de Victoria said. “In coming months, companies are going to go broke. The easy way out will be to buy a ticket and head out.”

Atabey Nuñez, 25, who lost her job as an accountant with a TV series because of Maria, said her plan is “to finish this month’s rent and go to the States.” She’s bilingual and hopes to stay with whichever friend can put her up the longest.

“I was going to look for a job here, but there’s no electricity,” Nuñez said. “It’s hard to find Internet, so it’s hard to find a job.”

Atabey Nuñez, 25, gestures as she talks in San Juan on Oct. 7, 2017, about how she lost her job as an accountant after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. (Photo: Oren Dorell, USA TODAY)

She had planned to backpack across Europe next summer, but that prospect is dashed because she’s been dipping into savings to survive.

There is still a stigma to leaving. 

Melisa Gonzalez, 34, and her husband Gabriel Viera, 32, are both affluent bankers in the capital who continue working despite the destruction elsewhere on the island. 

“I think those who leave the island are not proud,” Viera said. “They just leave and disappear.”

He said if he lost his job at the bank, he would work for a coffee plantation doing manual labor, and others should seek farm or construction jobs to rebuild the commonwealth.

Gonzalez said she wants to leave. “But if we abandon the situation, we’re not going to help the island move on,” she said. “We have the finances to leave, but we don’t want to because we’re part of the solution. But —“

“We don’t judge,” interrupted her husband.

“— when the going gets tough, the Puerto Rican people stay,” Gonzalez finished.

Quiñones, the psychology student, rejected that way of thinking.

“No one should tell me I’m not doing enough for my country,” she said, sipping water on her front porch to take advantage of the natural light and fresh air. “Actually, my country is not doing enough for me.”

More: With 80% of Puerto Rico still without power, Trump says FEMA can’t stay ‘forever’

More: Trump’s wildly different responses to hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico

More: Nearly 3 weeks after Hurricane Maria, distributing aid across Puerto Rico is a mess

More: Puerto Rico’s farmers face near total loss from Hurricane Maria

More: Puerto Rico health system on life support two weeks after Hurricane Maria

More: Puerto Ricans say Trump’s visit helps recovery but comments are too political

More: With long lines for food, water and fuel and no electricity, Puerto Ricans help each other

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