Both the federal and Puerto Rican government have facilitated the exodus. In the absence of a true plan for recovery on the island, migration has become a form of disaster relief. For the first time in the agency’s history, FEMA created an “air bridge” and chartered cruise ships to evacuate residents. Initially, new arrivals had to seek shelter with family members or in homeless shelters, but they are now being offered hotel stays for up to three months. Traditionally, FEMA offers temporary shelter to homeowners who have been affected by a disaster while they carry out the arduous task of rebuilding. However, in the case of Maria, that rebuilding has been severely stalled by the lack of electricity and running water, and the inability of the U.S. government to supply even the most basic materials, such as tarps.
Those leaving are not just escaping destroyed homes, they are also fleeing a shattered economy. Nearly four months after the storms, many restaurants, stores and offices remain closed — either because of structural damage or the financial hardship of operating on generators. Most hotels are operating with reduced personnel serving only FEMA workers, and some, like El Conquistador in Fajardo, have laid off almost all their workers. Just last week, Walmart, the largest private employer on the island, announced it was closing three of its Sam’s Club stores, including one that had not opened since the storm. Meanwhile pharmaceuticals, which account for nearly half the manufacturing jobs on the island, are carefully weighing their options after the GOP tax bill treated Puerto Rico as a foreign jurisdiction, despite its status as a U.S. territory.