Will Puerto Ricans return home after Hurricane María?

Even before this year’s devastating hurricane season, the team of demographers I work with at Penn State and the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics had predicted that the population of Puerto Rico would decline over the next few decades. Have Hurricanes Irma and María accelerated this trend?

Slowing population decline is central to the economic recovery plan drafted by the Puerto Rican government in March of this year. If migration off the island accelerates, it is likely that the government of Puerto Rico will face even greater challenges in meeting that plan’s milestones.

Preliminary data from the Puerto Rican Diaspora Study, which I recently concluded, can help shed light on how many Puerto Ricans who have fled the island might return home – and how many are gone for good.

Seeking shelter

In the two months since María made landfall, Puerto Ricans have left the island in even higher numbers than before. Recent commercial flight passenger data indicate that between Sept. 20, the day Hurricane María made landfall, and Nov. 7, approximately 100,000 people left Puerto Rico. That number exceeds the 89,000 people who left island during all of 2015 and increases by the day.

Lack of access to power, drinking water and health care are pushing people out. Recent forecasts of migration out of Puerto Rico from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY suggest that, because of Hurricane María, the island may lose up to 470,335 residents, or 14 percent of its current population, by 2020. This would represent a doubling of migration off the island compared to previous years.

Surveying the diaspora

My survey is designed to collect information from Puerto Ricans in the United States about their family members who remain on the island. The survey ran from Oct. 17 to Nov. 13, 2017. More than 6,000 eligible respondents completed it.

I employed a social media recruitment approach with targeted advertisements for Puerto Ricans living in the United States. The recruitment process was aided by organizations that serve the Puerto Rican and Latino population in the United States, and respondents who shared the survey through social media.