When Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico in September 2017, it left mass devastation in its wake. Many Puerto Ricans flocked to the mainland in wake of the storm, to places like New York and Florida. Now we have the numbers to show just how big this exodus actually was.
From July 2017 to July 2018, Puerto Rico lost nearly 130,000 people, according to Census data out Wednesday. For an island of over 3 million whose population was already declining, that might sound like a blip, but this 3.9 percent reduction is actually quite large. No state saw its population decline more than 1 percent last year, and most saw increases.
It was a large loss compared with the island’s recent history, too. Per census data, Puerto Rico has lost an average of about 55,000 people a year over the last seven years. This past year’s decline is more than double that.
“Puerto Rico has seen a steady decline in population over the last decade,” said Sandra Johnson, a statistician in the Population Division of the Census Bureau, in a press release. “Hurricane Maria in September of 2017 further impacted that loss, both before and during the recovery period.”
Hurricane Maria was the deadliest storm in modern U.S. history and left many people without power for more than six months in what amounted to the second-longest blackout ever. While it’s no wonder people left, this number is still 80,000 people less than the highest initial estimates the Center for Puerto Rican Studies put out in October 2017. The center used Census data to finalize these estimates and will use these new numbers to update its research.
More than 3 million people still live in Puerto Rico, and the island needs them to thrive. The economy was suffering long before this Maria struck, and it can’t bounce back without people investing in it, according to Carlos Vargas, the director of public policy at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
“As little money as people have, that’s money circulating in the economy, and without people there, that represents a decline in economic activity, which doesn’t bode well for the economy at large,” he told Earther.
Unfortunately, a lot of the people who are leaving are working-age people with kids. As they take their families with them, schools shut down, which put teachers out of work and leave the students who stay struggling to gain an education. Medical specialists are also on the move, Vargas said, and that hurts Puerto Rico’s healthcare system overall.
We know these types of storms won’t stop in the age of climate change. If Puerto Rico isn’t more prepared next time, it risks another great migration.