To visitors, Vieques, the small island community on the east coast of Puerto Rico, looks much like it did before Hurricanes Irma and María wreaked havoc in September 2017. Business is booming in the bar and hostel run by Stephanie Latona, a colorful beachside hut popular with visitors. Federal relief has primarily benefited tourist areas, and tourism has returned to pre-hurricane numbers.
For Latona, however, Vieques is significantly different. One of the most notable things that has changed since the hurricanes, Latona says, is that there are fewer familiar faces. "The community definitely feels like it has gotten smaller," he said. "The people who left after Maria, or even Irma, stayed until the next storm, but eventually they stopped trying to rebuild and left."
Latona understands why some of her neighbors packed for good. In the two years since María, the local hospital has yet to be rebuilt, and reaching the closest alternative requires a few hours' drive to the Puerto Rican mainland. Many of the stores in his neighborhood have closed, limiting food supplies. Then there are the frequent power outages.
Watching the community shrink has been difficult for Latona's 6-year-old son. Every time a classmate stops showing up at school, she has another conversation with him about the trauma they've been through and the choice they've made to stay, at least for now.
The Puerto Ricans had already left en masse before Maria. With a struggling economy, the population fell 9 percent between 2000 and 2015. After the twin hurricanes of 2017, as many as 210,000 sought refuge in the continental United States. Last December, more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans never returned. The United States Census Bureau estimates that Puerto Rico's population will decline to 2.98 million by 2050, its lowest level since 1980.
"There's a real feeling of" what's the point of coming back? Latona said, describing the perspective of the Puerto Ricans who have left. "Why bother holding out and coming back if the next catastrophe that causes you to lose everything is just a season away?"
It is an increasingly urgent question for many of the 43 million residents of the Caribbean. The Caribbean contributes less than one percent of all global CO2 emissions, but is subject to the disproportionate consequences of warming temperatures and rising sea levels, in the form of tropical storms.
But when climate refugees from the Caribbean seek help from the world's largest cumulative CO2 emitter, the United States, they have not been received with much warmth. In the past, accepting climate refugees was seen as a bipartisan value. Breaking the rule, the Trump administration denied Temporary Protected Status designation to the roughly 70,000 Bahamians left homeless after Hurricane Dorian decimated the islands of Grand Bahama and Abacos in August. Florida Republican Governor Rick DeSantis has publicly discouraged Bahamians from moving to Sunshine State after Dorian.
“You can feel a difference - the relief feels more temporary than before,” said Marlon Hill, a Miami-based attorney and liaison for climate migrants from the Caribbean. "Only our president's rhetoric invokes stereotypes about immigrants who come here and become a burden when most research shows they are a benefit."
As US citizens, Puerto Ricans do not face the same legal challenges as Bahamians who want to immigrate to the US But some Puerto Ricans who moved to the US after the hurricanes of 2017 have encountered hostility from some unexpected sources. . A University of Miami survey found that Puerto Ricans who moved to Central Florida had a harder time finding work or housing than Puerto Ricans who moved to Miami, in part because South Florida has a critical mass of Spanish-speakers. The same group also reported more cases of hostility from the Puerto Rican population in downtown Flordia.
“What happened in many of these cases was that older Puerto Ricans rejected these people,” Seth Schwartz, study co-author and professor of public health sciences at the University of Miami, told The Ledger, a central Florida newspaper. .
With a steady increase in Puerto Ricans who moved to central Florida after Maria, their Democratic-leaning votes are predicted to be a political force rivaling Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans. And not everyone is happy with the demographic change.
Zoraida Ríos-Andino of Misión Boricua, an advocacy group representing members of Orlando's growing Puerto Rican diaspora (also known as Puerto Ricans), says Florida politicians are beginning to understand their potential political power.
"After María, it seemed good to worry about Puerto Ricans, people came to shake hands and take photos in our communities," said Rios-Andino. “But politicians realize that we come here and we can vote. Now they are accountable to us, and that's when you started to notice that the welcome mat was disappearing.
And then there are the less tangible challenges of migrating after a climate disaster. Moving can make migrants feel like they are leaving their native communities in a time of need.
"That can compound the trauma and stress for migrants seeking to escape disasters at home," said Adelle Thomas, a Bahamas-based senior researcher at Climate Analytics, an environmental policy and research organization. His research has shed light on the mental health vulnerabilities of Bahamians who migrate after storms.
Caribbean residents who choose not to leave their home after a weather-related disaster face their own unique challenges. After Hurricane Irma damaged 95 percent of Barbuda's infrastructure in 2017, residents who returned home found a government that seemed friendlier to foreign investors than its own citizens. And then there are the psychological impacts of living in a community in decline.
"As you watch your homeland permanently change around you, it is that loss of community that can have long-term mental health effects like PTSD and depression," Thomas said.
Latona's family has felt the stress of leaving and staying. After Hurricane Maria, she gave up and temporarily moved with her son to Wisconsin. But unlike the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have since established permanent homes in Florida, New York and elsewhere, Latona decided to try life again on Vieques.
She found that taking a vacation to the mainland of the US helps relieve the stress of boiling water advisories, inoperable power generators and two-hour ferries to San Juan for medical appointments. On a recent flight back from the Midwest, Latona casually sat behind a Vieques native who was heading home from Chicago.
"We joined immediately knowing that it can be the struggle that they live on the island, but also how it can motivate you," he said. “Vieques is our community, the entire island is our family. The more it hardens, the more we stick together and resist it ”, he closed.
But with climate change looming, Latona admits she doesn't know how many more return flights she will be willing to make.