SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A graduate student here plans to abandon her thesis project and seek a doctorate in psychology at Stanford or the University of Michigan. A mechanical engineer with Honeywell is leaving for Arizona. And an accountant is asking friends on the U.S. mainland for a place to stay to look for a job.
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria left a path of destruction that brought Puerto Rico’s economy to a virtual halt, students, young professionals and many others are seeking to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
And the move has many worried that the youthful exodus, particularly of educated and accomplished residents, could further hamper the island's slow recovery from the Sept. 20 storm, and leave a population dominated by older residents.
Viviana Quiñones, 28, was working on a thesis at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan about community participatory theater as a tool in psychological therapy. But now there’s no theater, no therapy and “school is suspended until further notice,” she said. “We’re trying to find a flight.”
Her boyfriend, Luis Enrique, 26, who works as an accountant and is also a grad student, pointed out that electricity and telecommunications are still down across much of the U.S. territory. ”Nothing is telling us everything will be OK in one or two years. We don’t have that time to waste,” he said.
The trend of young people leaving Puerto Rico began before Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma striking two weeks earlier. But the overwhelming devastation is now accelerating a process of migration that could trigger a future financial crisis, said Carlos Méndez, an associate administrator at the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital, one of the island’s top medical facilities.
“Younger people are leaving the island and older people stay,” Mendez said. “There’s not going to be enough (young workers). Eventually the structure will fail.”
Orlando Lopez de Victoria, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Auxilio Mutuo, said his son Luis works as a mechanical engineer at Honeywell’s aerospace lab in Aguadilla, in the hard-hit northwest corner of the island where power is not expected to be restored for weeks — or months.
“My son is telling me he’s going to leave the island to go to Arizona or somewhere,” Lopez de Victoria said. “In coming months, companies are going to go broke. The easy way out will be to buy a ticket and head out.”
Atabey Nuñez, 25, who lost her job as an accountant with a TV series because of Maria, said her plan is “to finish this month’s rent and go to the States.” She's bilingual and hopes to stay with whichever friend can put her up the longest.
“I was going to look for a job here, but there’s no electricity,” Nuñez said. “It’s hard to find Internet, so it’s hard to find a job.”
She had planned to backpack across Europe next summer, but that prospect is dashed because she’s been dipping into savings to survive.
There is still a stigma to leaving.
Melisa Gonzalez, 34, and her husband Gabriel Viera, 32, are both affluent bankers in the capital who continue working despite the destruction elsewhere on the island.
“I think those who leave the island are not proud,” Viera said. “They just leave and disappear.”
He said if he lost his job at the bank, he would work for a coffee plantation doing manual labor, and others should seek farm or construction jobs to rebuild the commonwealth.
Gonzalez said she wants to leave. “But if we abandon the situation, we’re not going to help the island move on,” she said. “We have the finances to leave, but we don’t want to because we’re part of the solution. But —“
“We don’t judge,” interrupted her husband.
“— when the going gets tough, the Puerto Rican people stay,” Gonzalez finished.
Quiñones, the psychology student, rejected that way of thinking.
“No one should tell me I’m not doing enough for my country,” she said, sipping water on her front porch to take advantage of the natural light and fresh air. “Actually, my country is not doing enough for me.”