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The New Wave of Climate Refugees From Puerto Rico

An article last week on the dire status of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria said to expect one of the largest mass migration flows to the United States in recent history. Reporters Daniel CusickAdam Aton predicted tens of thousands of storm victims will flee the island to start new lives in the United States and will join other “climate refugees” from southernmost Louisiana and the shrinking islands of Alaska’s Bering Strait. Yesterday, (Oct. 2) Jake Godin of abc2news.com concurred that climate change is on course to create more refugees and mass migrations and “sudden-onset disasters like floods, storms and wildfires displace an average of 21.5 million people every year worldwide.”


Here at ClimateYou we think the estimated 200,000 refugees the article cites is probably based on 5% of 3.4 million rounded up. How realistic is that likely to be? Very hard to say, especially given the still unknown speed, scale and efficacy of the Federal disaster relief effort. Latin family ties bind, so many Puerto Rican U.S. residents will help out, either with recovery/rebuilding or support for temporary or permanent immigration to the States. Another factor is the economic: job prospects here versus there. PR economy was hurting, anemic, long before Maria, the government was/is bankrupt. The U.S. economy has largely recovered from the 2008-’09 great recession, if unevenly. The Fed is cautiously optimistic about US growth going forward; it has started winding down its balance sheet after a long period of pump-priming; the stock market remains buoyant amid growing skepticism that Trump’s campaign-touted tax reform and infrastructure agenda items will ever be enacted. How much of PR industry survived the storm is still unknown. How much capital investment will “relief” entail? Probably very little. Here at ClimateYou, we expect a long, very slow economic recovery, which will exacerbate the ‘push’ immigration factors. It’s unlikely PR’s agriculture will rebound very far or fast. Maybe a few more light industry tax-free zones in food or clothing processing/finishing might have to happen. Island economies face tough constraints; many products and raw materials have to be imported by sea or air, and finished products exported, both of which raise costs. There’s tourism, but PR has been out-branded, out-invested, out-promoted, and out-drawn. Possibilities for tourism development exist — tropical weather, beaches, Old San Juan, relative proximity, especially for East coast Americans who come to PR where English is fairly widely spoken, no currency conversion needed, no visa nor passport required. It would take a few years, but it’s doable. There are a few hurdles to surmount (too near, too de-classed, foreign but not foreign enough), but should be doable, and would provide PR with long-term economic viability. First-blush guess at political implications of an influx of Puerto Ricans mainly to NY, NJ, and FL (in FL, anti-Castro Cuban influence would be diluted), would favor Democrats, especially if Trumpian/Republican relief effort is perceived as too little, too late, too racist, too grudging, too inadequate entirely to the scale of the humanitarian crisis, as is already starting to be seen. Our bet is the 200,000 refugee inflow estimate will prove to be low; it could easily double.

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