If there was any doubt about the dramatic impact the aftermath of Hurricane Maria has had on Puerto Rico, Florida Gov. Rick Scott emphasized the state has now taken in between one-fifth to one-tenth of the entire population of the U.S. territorial island since the storm.
In an impromptu news conference during a visit in Jacksonville Tuesday at the St. Johns Marine Group company on Heckscher Drive, Scott detailed how hundreds of thousands of storm refugees have left Puerto Rico and landed in Florida since Maria slammed the island Sept. 20.
“Since Maria has hit the island of Puerto Rico — I’ve been there a couple of times — we’ve set up two relief centers; one at the Miami airport, one at the Orlando airport. We’ve had over 280,000 Puerto Ricans come here,” Scott said.
That figure focuses on Florida arrivals only; many of the refugees are heading to other areas of the country. The population of Puerto Rico was an estimated 3.5 million people. That number was dropping month by month before the storm, as many residents were relocating to the U.S. mainland because of an economic crisis caused by the Puerto Rican government’s inability to repay billions of dollars in bonds.
The storm refugees have been straining resources of the Puerto Rican-Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Northeast Florida in recent months. In a Times-Union report in late December, Nancy Quinones, president of that group, said her organization was helping resettle as many as 100 storm refugees each week.
Quinones said the chamber was also helping many new arrivals who came to Northeast Florida after failing to find work in Central and South Florida where Puerto Rican refugees are most concentrated.
Scott said Tuesday that the state is helping Puerto Rican refugees in many ways.
“We’re using everything we can, including CareerSource, to help them find jobs to helping them get into our education system. Our K-12 system is very accommodating,” Scott said.
Even without the influx of Puerto Rican refugees, there were 340,000 people who moved to Florida in the past year, he said.
“This state is used to growth and this is going to be something that will help grow our state,” Scott said.
In another development, Scott announced that Puerto Rican teens who came here in the aftermath of the storm are eligible to earn their high school diplomas in Florida.
State educators are coordinating with Puerto Rican education officials to transfer educational credits.