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U.S. Local Authorities Expecting Influx Of Puerto Ricans After Hurricane Maria

Oct 1, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to the mainland United States, where local authorities are gearing up to receive what could be a large number of residents fleeing the destruction in Puerto Rico. But even on the mainland, tough challenges await, as NPR's Colin Dwyer reports.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: In just the past six years, nearly 10 percent of Puerto Rico's population had left the U.S. territory during its long recession. And that was before Hurricane Maria steamrolled much of the island last month. Edwin Melendez is head of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City. He says the number of Puerto Ricans coming to the mainland, which recently has been about 60,000 people annually, could double or even triple in the coming year as these U.S. citizens seek the safety and health care they can't get on the island right now.

EDWIN MELENDEZ: There is a flow that could reach hundreds of thousands of people leaving Puerto Rico. And that - we've never seen something like this. You know, we're really making it up as we go along.

DWYER: A huge part of that challenge is how to support the students coming from Puerto Rico, where most of the schools are still shut down. Florida Governor Rick Scott has promised his state will do whatever it can to support evacuees. That includes more than two dozen state colleges and universities that are waiving out-of-state fees for Puerto Rican students. Schools there are preparing for the arrival of younger students, too.

As of late last week, Miami-Dade County alone had already accepted about 12 new students. And the local superintendent expects that number to rise dramatically as air travel from Puerto Rico gets easier. And other states, such as Massachusetts and New York, have promised to support people searching for a place to live - either temporary or permanent. A massive reconstruction effort awaits Puerto Rico. And Melendez says an important part of that effort will be supporting its residents away from the island and not just in the short term.

MELENDEZ: Puerto Rico has been part of the United States for over a century. And, you know, we're American citizens. And we're American citizens in need. And we've got to demonstrate that we take care of our own.

DWYER: And, he says, the really hard work is still to come. Colin Dwyer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.