The hurricane-caused devastation in Puerto Rico that has left large chunks of the island in the dark and without drinking water poses a major challenge for humanitarian aid. It may also pose an unexpected political challenge as many Puerto Ricans flee their island home, perhaps for good.
They are climate refugees. Not in the technical and legal sense of “refugees,” but in the practical meaning of the word. They are fleeing what they view as an untenable existence, not because of a perceived slow response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but because they see a worsening climate affecting their safety and economic well-being.
Climigration may not be limited to Puerto Rico, which has been hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes. Residents in the US Virgin Islands, Florida Keys and southeast Texas may retreat to higher ground to avoid future exposure to winds, flooding and water surges in floodplains and coastlines.
These climate refugees may or may not believe in human-caused climate change, but they no longer doubt the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways. The specter of entire islands with flattened buildings, no electricity and a decimated economy can be deeply disheartening. In Puerto Rico, death counts and damage estimates are impossible because many areas remain virtually inaccessible.
FEMA and President George W. Bush took a beating for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. FEMA has gotten higher marks for its response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. For Puerto Ricans standing in an impossibly long line to get on a cruise ship bound for the mainline, FEMA isn’t the issue. They just can’t picture themselves trying to put their lives back together on an island with dim prospects.
If you have a serious illness, you don’t see much chance of getting the care you need. If you are in the tourism industry, it is hard to imagine many of the 2.3 million tourists who visit Puerto Rico returning any time soon. If you are living on the economic edge, falling into poverty seems likely. If you are a political official for a territory already in deep debt, there may not be any light in the tunnel.
US-citizen climigrants will settle in new places, with a likely concentration in Florida. Like Cuban refugees, Puerto Rican refugees will bring their political views with them, including their views about the impacts of climate change. Experiencing historic back-to-back hurricanes can leave a lasting impression. And that’s the political dilemma.
Apart from a herculean effort to rebuild Puerto Rico and other devastated Caribbean islands, there is a huge question mark about their future economic footing. As an island without any commercially viable natural resources, Puerto Rico must rely on manufacturing and tourism, both of which need to count on basics like electricity. Puerto Rico already has seen an out-migration of its population – a net loss of almost 450,000 people between 2005 and 2015. Island flight may accelerate, as evidenced by the exodus on flights bound for the mainland.
Climigration isn’t new in the long history of earth. That’s probably how many people wound up where they are. Most recently, more than 400,000 residents pulled up stakes and left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Chunks of the city remain more or less in ruins.
Congress passed an initial hurricane relief funding package in response to the devastation in Texas, but has been preoccupied with other issues, including a proposed massive tax cut, after the devastation in Puerto Rico. The perceived slight is becoming a political issue on Capitol Hill, with Democrats urging swifter, stronger actions to assist Puerto Rico.
Ultimately as many as 1 million Puerto Ricans may move and take their first-hand view of climate change – and the political response – with them to new constituencies.