Thousands of Puerto Ricans land in Florida, fleeing the misery left by Hurricane Maria

Throngs of Puerto Ricans waving flags, balloons and homemade banners gathered at Port Everglades on Tuesday to greet a massive cruise ship carrying more than 3,300 hurricane evacuees from the Caribbean.

As a boombox blasted salsa beats and Luis Fonsi’s summer hit “Despacito,” a long parade of evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands set foot on the mainland and the crowd erupted in cheers of “Puerto Rico se levanta!” — Puerto Rico is rising.

Some evacuees were tourists who had been stranded on the island, but many were longtime residents fleeing the only home they had ever known. Hundreds were frail, many in wheelchairs. Others pushed strollers and carried young children, Shih Tzus, cats, exotic birds, even a hamster.

Diana Torres, 69, who had left her flooded apartment in the Puerto Rican town of Guaynabo, beamed as she hugged her older sister, Yaima Escobar, who lives in Miami.

“Thanks to God we’re here,” Torres said as she weaved through the crowd with her children, grandchildren and pet cockatiel, Rio.

It was a bittersweet moment. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, ripping roofs off homes and wiping out the island’s electric grid and air traffic control system, she was happy to be on safe ground and reunite with family. Yet like many, she wondered if and when she would ever return home.

Rebuilding the island inhabited by 3.4 million U.S. citizens will mean massive federal assistance, or the likelihood of a mass exodus more extreme than the one Hurricane Katrina set off from New Orleans more than a decade ago.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned last week that without a comprehensive relief package from the federal government, large numbers of residents could seek refuge in mainland states such as New York, Florida and Texas.

“You’re not going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the states — you’re going to get millions,” Rossello said at a news conference. “You’re going to get millions, creating a devastating demographic shift for us here in Puerto Rico — a brain drain.”

Those scrambling to get off the island said conditions had become too extreme to stay.

“Things are very bad in Puerto Rico. There is no water, no power, no gas. They don’t know when they are going back,” Escobar said as she watched islanders disembark the huge Adventure of the Seas cruise ship.

Nivea Ribas, a 57-year-old physician neurologist in Miami who waved a small Puerto Rican flag as she waited for her 85-year-old mother to arrive in a wheelchair, said she worried the island would be uninhabitable for many elderly residents for a long time.

“She may have to live her last years out of her country,” Ribas said of her mother, who has diabetes and depends on insulin. “We hope after six months, when the power and hospitals are running, we can see if she can return. As a Puerto Rican, I will tell you, she will definitely like to spend the rest of her life on the island.”

Many evacuees said they hoped to return whenever the islands restore power and water, and rebuild homes and schools.

Sitting on a bench away from the crowds as she waited for a car to whisk her to Orlando, Vilma Blanco, an 85-year-old resident of old San Juan, was happy to be with family, but overwhelmed.

“The problem is, I didn’t want to leave,” Blanco said. “My son made me. We had no water, no electricity, no food. He said we would be better off leaving.”

Blanco, who has a heart condition, had bruises on her face and was having difficulty walking after having taken a fall on the cruise ship. She had not traveled in more than a decade. At her age, she said, she’d never imagined she would travel again.

“I am very happy to have this opportunity,” she said as she waited for a car to whisk her off to family in Orlando. “But I am planning to get back as soon as I get electricity.”

Sandra Rivera, after finally getting her 94-year-old father, Woodrow Diaz, off the island, did not want to think about when he might return.

“He’s never going back,” she said firmly as she gazed down at the World War II veteran, who sat quietly in a wheelchair with a blue blanket covering his lap. “He’s going to a VA hospital in San Diego.”

Rivera, who lives in San Diego, had been stranded in Puerto Rico after traveling there to get her father to a hospital for kidney surgery. Last week, as their food had almost run out, a man knocked at the door of her aunt’s home in Rincón and told her that her daughter, Rebecca, in Boca Raton, Fla., had gotten them tickets for the cruise ship.

“You saved their lives,” Rebecca said tearfully to a Royal Caribbean employee as she wheeled her grandfather through the crowd. “Literally, all they had left was a can of corned beef, a can of tuna, and just a few bottles of water. They wouldn’t have lasted.”

Many in the crowd had struggled for days to contact parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles on the island.

“It was almost like making smoke signals, telling friends to tell friends in an effort to reach them,” Michelle Gomez–Raney, 51, from Bradenton, Fla., said of her family’s struggle to rescue her 84-year-old parents from San Juan. “We tried everything to get them on this ship.”

As her sister, Ivette, waved a banner reading “Bienvenidos Mami y Papi,” Michelle said she wasn’t sure whether her parents would ever return to their homeland. Her mother has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and requires oxygen.

“We don’t know if they will be able to go back,” she said. “They love their island, but they were desperate. It’s kind of a forced situation.”

Already, thousands of elderly nursing home patients, homebound survivors and other stranded island residents have been transported by air. More than 90 dialysis patients from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are being housed at Florida International University.

The Adventure of the Seas left San Juan on Thursday, picking up 1,791 evacuees from Puerto Rico and then 864 more from St. John and St. Croix and 681 from St. Thomas as part of a humanitarian trip organized by the Miami-based Royal Caribbean International. Tickets were free and one-way.

Hundreds of evacuees were met by families and friends. Others boarded buses to airports that would whisk them to family as far afield as Texas, New York and Utah.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he was opening three disaster relief centers to assist Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria — at Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami. The centers, which opened Tuesday morning, are staffed by state employees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and Catholic Charities.

“Puerto Rico is absolutely devastated and so many families have lost everything,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “Our goal is to make sure that while Gov. Rossello is working to rebuild Puerto Rico, any families displaced by Maria that come to Florida are welcomed and offered every available resource from the state.”

Fewer than 10 families took a bus Tuesday to the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, where local officials had set up a makeshift relief center with scores of stalls offering financial assistance, food stamps, school information and legal advice.

Vicky Thomas, a volunteer court advocate for sexual abuse victims in St. Croix, had moved back to the island from Florida last year, and had no idea what she was going to do.

“My goal was to resettle back home,” she said softly as she waited with her two daughters, Cantoria and Victoria, at the terminal for a bus to the convention center. “Now I have to start over all over again. It’s just a lot — a lot.“

They had no place to stay, no money and no car — just a black-and-blue suitcase filled with clothes and legal documents such as her birth certificate. Thomas worried about her dog, Royalty, whom she had left with neighbors.

Inside the convention center, Gustavo De Jesus, 42, a self-employed electric technician from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, and his partner, Deborah, filled in paperwork to enroll their 12- and 13-year-old sons in the Broward County school system. Back home, their school was destroyed, and they had no idea how long it would take to rebuild.

“I didn’t want them to lose the entire semester,” Deborah said, noting that one son had Asperger’s syndrome and the other had attention deficit disorder. “They need structure.”

De Jesus said he would likely return to Puerto Rico in a few weeks to work while the rest of the family stayed with relatives.

“It’s like a 180-decision,” he said. “We want to be together, but I have to gain money. Probably I’ll go back and forth.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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