02:39 - Source: CNN
This family fled Puerto Rico for fear of more earthquakes
New York CNN  — 

The beefy ex-cop sleeps in a twin-size trundle bed a few inches off the hardwood floor. His wife, their 17-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son rest on the attached full-size bed, and their 16-year-old son turns in on the upper bunk.

Another couple and their 10-year-old son share a queen-size bed in the next room.

Three other families sleep on hulking inflatable mattresses that, when propped up during the day, block out the sunlight in the dining and living rooms.

This is life these days for more than a dozen of Jodie Roure’s relatives who fled a swarm of earthquakes that have hit Puerto Rico since late December. They cram her two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood, forcing Roure to split them up to manage their stress.

“The tension buildup was so bad that I had some stay with another family member,” said Roure, 49, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You have 14 to 16 people in less than 1,000 square feet.”

Alejandro Quiles, 16, left, his brother Alexander, 7, middle-left, their sister Ronalys, 17, on the inflatable mattress, and their cousin Sebastián Quiñones, 10, middle, lounge around on a quiet morning in New York.

Since the ground started shaking on December 28 – leaving at least one person dead, causing dozens of buildings to crumble, and cutting power and water to swaths of the island – terrified families have been fleeing Puerto Rico.

Stunned residents, fearing the worst, have abandoned homes for cars and vans, for mattresses dragged onto sidewalks and sprawling tent-covered encampments.

For Roure’s relatives, the daily lines outside her lone bathroom aren’t so bad in comparison.

“The other day I told my husband to get me a bucket because I couldn’t wait,” Mirta Santiago Cortés, 67, said with a laugh.

There also are discussions about polarized island politics. Meal preparation and cleanup duties. And agreeing on what to eat each night.

“We’ve had our arguments,” said Santiago’s daughter, Sharon Quiñones Cortés, 46, who came with her to New York with her own husband and their young son, Sebastian.

It’s not the life they’d chose. But, at least for now, it beats the seismic terror. And they’re not alone.

Earthquakes prompt the latest diaspora

It’s too early to quantify the scope of this latest diaspora.

Even before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, an unprecedented migration had begun from the Caribbean island to the mainland United States. It was fueled in part by the US commonwealth’s prolonged financial crisis. Then, tens of thousands more departed after the deadly storm, moving to every US state, from Florida to Alaska.

Now, they’re taking flight again – running from packed shelters set up under tent clusters in hard-hit southern coastal towns assailed by hundreds of temblors.

Santiago, waiting for a pot of coffee to brew in the small kitchen in Hamilton Heights, came to the mainland this month with 16 relatives, all with one-way tickets on the same flight. She said her sister and husband – whose home in Puerto Rico was destroyed – also left in January to stay with family in Chicago.

Mirta Santiago Cortés, 67, waits for a pot of coffee to brew in the Manhattan apartment she shares with more than a dozen family members from Puerto Rico.

Another relative, Miguel Rodriguez, said eight more family members from the island – including his mother, his daughter and grandchildren – moved from Puerto Rico to his Orlando home two weeks ago.

“We’re struggling,” he said by phone.

The Rev. Jose Rodriguez, an Episcopal priest in Orlando whose church helped people who fled after Maria, said hundreds of families affected by the earthquakes have arrived in Central Florida.

“We’re all grasping at straws as to what to do with the earthquake families,” he said. “Obviously, it isn’t as large of a movement as after Hurricane Maria. … But these are hundreds of households who are homeless, who are suffering from PTSD, who have been hit by two traumas – Hurricane Maria and now the earthquakes.”

A 10-year-old prays for friends back home

That trauma is palpable in Roure’s overcrowded Manhattan apartment.

While Sebastian, 10, said he now feels safe, he worries constantly about the fate of friends who stayed behind.

“I feel bad for them,” he said. “They can’t travel here. Their families are trying to find where to live.”

Quiñones, his mother, said the boy has insisted on sleeping in the same bed as his parents since the first quake in December.

She and her husband, Ismael, 51, are both accountants and left their home in Guayanilla, on the southern Puerto Rican coast. Before boarding the flight with Santiago, they’d lived less than a mile from Inmaculada Concepción church, which partially collapsed. Sebastian was preparing for his First Communion in May.

“He doesn’t know the church collapsed,” Quiñones said. “We thought it would be too much to tell him.”

The town’s Costa Sur Power Plant, which produced more than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s electricity, was severely damaged. Most residents have moved outdoors, especially after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake on January 7, the strongest to hit the island of about 3 million US citizens in more than a century.

Sebastián Quiñones, 10, watches a video on a phone in a corridor of his aunt's New York apartment amid a pile of clothing donations for the recent arrivals from Puerto Rico.

“Sebastian would start crying at night. Every night,” his mother recalled. “The biggest quakes came at night. I would hear him praying for his friends. … He would ask God to spare us from the earthquakes each night.”

They only decided to leave Puerto Rico because of Sebastian, said Quiñones and her husband.

“If we return, we will not go back to Guayanilla,” she said. “He doesn’t want to return to the house.”

The couple said they will live off their savings for now. They have taken leave from their jobs with the local government and will handle tax return preparation for private clients remotely.

“Our final decision will be based on how our son adapts to school here,” said Ismael Quiñones, whose father, four sisters and 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage remain in Puerto Rico.

“We invested so much over the years in our home,” his wife said. “It’s hard to walk away.”

Erratic quakes can be worse than Maria

Alejandro Quiles, 40, a retired police officer from the southern coastal town of Guánica, left the island on that same January 14 flight with his wife – another of Santiago’s daughters – Jeannette, 41, plus their daughter and two sons – Ronalys, 17; Alejandro, 16; and Alexander, 7.

“It’s like the walls were screaming,” Quiles said of the recurring earthquakes.

“You’re constantly thinking about the next one,” his son, Alejandro, said. “Will it be bigger? It’s not something you forget.”

Alejandro Quiles, 40, a retired police officer from the town of Guánica, sits in the living room of the New York apartment he shares with 16 family members from Puerto Rico.

The impact of the uncommon and unpredictable quakes are, for some, worse than the hurricane’s aftermath.

“You can’t compare this to Maria,” Quiles said. “After the storm ended, you felt safe and knew there would be a recovery. In this case, we don’t know when we’ll have more earthquakes.”

Quiles finally decided to lock up and park the truck from which he sold food at the entrance to the beaches of Guánica in front of his home, which sustained some damage. A house two doors down crumbled to the ground.

“You go to sleep each night thinking about what’s going to happen,” Quiles said. “Where will we go? Should we stay here? It’s stressful not being able to control your life.”

His daughter, Ronalys, is a high school senior. She was applying to colleges – but those plans are now on hold.

“So many people are not as fortunate as we were,” Quiles said. “We’re safe now, but in every other sense – economically, in terms of stability – we’re in limbo.”

17 one-way flights and no lodging plan

Days after the first earthquake in late December, his mother-in-law, Santiago, simply couldn’t spend another moment in Guánica, the town that took the brunt of the damage from the earthquakes.

“It was like the walls were coming down,” she said of the persistent aftershocks.

“I was worried about her state of mind,” said her 37-year-old son, Hernan Cortés Quiles. “I told my sisters, ‘We need to get mom off the island.’ If I didn’t do something, I felt I was going to lose her.”

Santiago and about a dozen other family members first moved to Cortés’ apartment in the southwestern town of San Germán, which was also feeling the quakes.

Hernan Cortés Quiles, 37, left, helps sister Sharon Quiñones, 46, fill out an application for a Social Security card to replace the one she left behind on the island.

“They were crying all the time,” Cortés said of his relatives. “No one wanted to be under a roof. They were sitting outside under the hot sun all the time. They seemed very vulnerable.”

Santiago had told her son she would not leave the island without him and her three daughters. So, Cortés, who works for a health plan, said he charged 14 one-way tickets to New York on a credit card at $180 each. Three others covered their own flight costs.

He completed the purchase, though, before telling family in New York they’d be coming.

So, Cortés called Roure.

“I said, ‘Mami is not well,’” he recalled, referring to Santiago. “She said yes.”

He drove Santiago home to Guánica to pack her bags. After 10 minutes, she broke down in tears.

“She said, ‘Get me out of this house.’” he said. “I was surprised. She lived in that house all her life.”

Roure and relatives in New York put money together for expenses. She stocked the refrigerator. She used her connections as an activist for post-Maria medical relief efforts on the island to secure donations of winter clothing.

“We’ll figure it out because we’re resilient,” she said. “But people need to understand there are thousands of families across the United States in the same situation that no one is noticing. They are US citizens. Many fought in our wars and served our country.”

Disasters drive a steady exodus

In the six months after Maria, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to the US mainland, with 42% landing in Florida, according estimates in 2018 by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

The island has been rocked in recent years by a string of natural disasters, prolonged power outages, economic stagnation, corruption scandals and peaceful anti-government protests that resulted in Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation in July.

Alexander Quiles, 7, holds the cover of a dominoes box on an air mattress in the living room of his aunt Jodie Roure's apartment in Manhattan.

“These events have created a deep sense of insecurity among many residents of the island, which has in turn fueled the outmigration to the US mainland,” said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University.

“Unless the Island can recover quickly from its embattled situation, it will maintain a high rate of migration, and the population will likely continue to decline in the near future.”

In the weeks and months after Maria – which claimed thousands of lives – nonprofits and local, state and federal agencies on the mainland mobilized to respond to the influx of hurricane survivors.

“Since you don’t have people dying now, there is not the same sense of urgency,” said Amílcar Antonio Barreto, a professor at Northeastern University.

“So, those that decide to move to the US mainland, they’re largely going to be left to their own devices and the beneficence of their own family members.”

Duany added, “The growing demand for bilingual teachers, counselors and other staff is one challenge faced by many local schools. Local governments will likewise feel more pressure in their housing and job markets as a result of the increasing exodus.”

An ‘internalized trauma’ pervades Puerto Rico

As family members filled out applications for Social Security cards to replace ones they left behind, Roure talked on the phone with a Catholic Charities representative about the help they need.

“Housing is the priority right now,” she said. “They need (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Health insurance and mental health. They have PTSD. We have four school-aged children. I have two senior citizens who can use senior support centers. They don’t have all their documents.”

Hernan Santiago Cortés, left, Hernan Cortés Quiles, middle, and Alejandro Quiles, right, help clean the living room where some family members sleep each night.

“I’m going to speak to a supervisor, and we’ll put our heads together to see what can be provided,” the representative said.

“They want to work,” Roure continued. “These are all people that work. They’re not here to live off the system. The kids need therapy. They’re traumatized. My aunt is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Barreto, who is Puerto Rican, was in San Juan for a conference earlier this month during some of the temblors. He felt a foreboding among residents that was new.

“It was almost like an internalized trauma,” he said. “It’s more emotional when people, for example, talk about this relative or that relative who moved to the US mainland or elderly relatives who are like, ‘It used to be great to have all the grandkids around, but they’re all now on the mainland.’ The sense of community and cohesion that folks had has eroded a bit.”

On the day Roure’s relatives arrived from Puerto Rico two weeks ago, she took them to an awards ceremony where she was honored for her medical relief efforts after Maria. They were exhausted and hungry.

“‘I appreciate this award,’” she remembered telling a crowd of community activists and local elected officials.

“‘But we have the same problem right now. We have a new crisis. I want to recognize my family,’” she recalled saying as her 17 relatives stood up. “’They just arrived from Guánica. What can we do for people like them?’”

“The room,” she said, “was in tears.”

CNN’s Maria Santana contributed to this story.