In the fall of 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly wiped Puerto Rico off the map. Now, in this year’s mid-term elections in the United States, the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who were forced to flee their island home and are now registering to vote in Florida may well transform the political landscape of the state.
Climate change is not news to Puerto Ricans, said Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a researcher with the Center for Sustainable Development Studies at the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan. Though the island’s climate is technically tropical rainforest, 2015 found its citizens enduring a year-long drought which after “grinding farmland into ash,” ended in a “maddening deluge that washed away crops just as delighted farmers were finally planting them,” reports EcoWatch. “Then came 2017 and its cache of hurricanes.”
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The root of the crisis, and its consequences, are clear: “We’re bearing the brunt of climate change and we’re not really responsible for it,” said Avilés-Vázquez. In Puerto Rico, a jurisdiction with commonwealth status that doesn’t “get a say in the national climate debate,” EcoWatch notes that islanders can “only watch as a president, for whom they could not vote, rolls back federal environmental protections while their island boils.”
But things are different for Puerto Ricans who have left their broken island behind to try to rebuild their lives on the U.S. mainland. Once they register in a home state, they can vote along with every other American citizen. And if Puerto Rico’s righteously angry governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has anything to do with it, those in Florida will “use their fledgling political voice to rattle the presidential administration for its destructive decisions,” EcoWatch notes.
With so many Trump-hostile Puerto Ricans putting down roots in Florida, “the GOP is in damage control,” writes reporter Adam Lynch, “with business affiliates at Koch Industries ingratiating themselves with P.R. refugees through generous language and civics training courses in Orlando.”
Anthony Suarez, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida, predicted rough weather for Republican candidates, as islanders have been relocating to the mainland in record numbers for the past decade, quite apart from the recent post-Maria influx. “We got something really big [brewing] here,” he said. Add the reality that Puerto Ricans are enthusiastic voters—at least on their home island—and the GOP may well be wise to worry.
But then there is the devastating reality, Aviles-Vazquez said, that to be a climate refugee is to be “in survival mode,” overwhelmed with the labour of starting all over again. Voting in a state election may not be high on the list, and for good reason, she cautioned.
Then again, there will be many refugees like Marámellys Castro-Pérez who have been lucky enough to resettle fairly quickly. Her husband has found work, her kids are in school, “food is on the table, and they have electricity that still escapes about 35% of the population they left back on the island,” EcoWatch states. And Castro-Pérez, for one, fully intends to vote.