Climate Refugees in Florida Could Change the Politics There

Marámellys Castro-Pérez is a Puerto Rican refugee living in Orlando with her husband and twins

after the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Maria, in particular, scrubbed the island clean of electricity, working toilets and phone service. It dragged Castro-Pérez's world into the dark ages and pitted the island's modern, cosmopolitan populace against the once-tamed perils of hunger, biting insects and disease.

"I was very sad because the island was in desolation. It was a hard hit," Castro-Pérez explained through an interpreter. "It truly hurt to see my home like that: flooded, with no light or water, seeing my children suffering. I've cried. I've suffered. But hopefully this [move] will make it better."

Castro-Pérez is now living in Florida, but what happened back on the island still haunts her and will likely reflect in how she votes. And she's not the only one. A wave of climate refugees fleeing the island to Florida could change the face of Florida politics.

Maria's violence was unprecedented. It churned the island like a 125-mile-wide blender, set on "smite." Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a member of sustainable farming resource group Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, says island residents know who hit the button.

The island's tropical rainforest climate, she said, is changing before their eyes. Local farmers are adopting drought-tolerant crops. Some have relocated as arable land goes sour from shifting water distribution patterns and rising seas, which drown aquifers. Two years earlier the island saw one of the worst droughts in its history. It spent more than a year grinding farmland into ash, but then broke with a maddening deluge that washed away crops just as delighted farmers were finally planting them. Then came 2017 and its cache of hurricanes.

"So when Irma and Maria hit within two weeks of each other people were like 'what the—Mother Earth is trying to kill us,'" said Avilés-Vázquez, who is also a researcher for the Center for Sustainable Development Studies at the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan.

She claims Puerto Rico's climate-conscious inhabitants knew the value of recycling and a low carbon footprint long before the storms, but that couldn't stop them from being victimized.

"We're a small population. We can carbon sink or recycle and bike more and plant all the trees we want, but that won't change anything on the larger scale," she said. "We're bearing the brunt of climate change and we're not really responsible for it."

The U.S. stood only behind China as the planet's chief emitter of carbon dioxide in 2015—accounting for 15 percent of total global emissions from fuel combustion. Embattled Puerto Ricans don't get a say in the national climate debate, though, because of their commonwealth status. They can only watch as a president, for whom they could not vote, rolls back federal environmental protections while their island boils.

That changes when a Puerto Rican moves to the U.S. mainland, however. As U.S. citizens, islanders can vote as soon as they register in their new location. It's no different than moving from Albuquerque or Vegas. Knowing this, Puerto Rico's frustrated governor, Ricardo Rosselló, announced that he was mobilizing relocated Puerto Ricans to register to vote and use their fledgling political voice to rattle the presidential administration for its destructive decisions. Rosselló howled when Trump punctuated hurricane devastation with an untimely tax on U.S. businesses stationed on the island. Trump's refusal to permanently lift the Jones Act, which doubles the price of island imports, also curdles relations.

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