ORLANDO, Fla. — The UCF Puerto Rico Research Hub and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College held a summit to present data on the impact of Hurricane Maria to the island.

  • Experts say Puerto Rico struggling with school closures, unstable economy
  • At least 265 schools on the island closed down after Hurricane Maria
  • Population of the island could drop below 3 million by 2023

The summit was made up of 30 experts who addressed post-Hurricane Maria conditions of stateside Puerto Ricans, migration to Central Florida, disaster response and recovery, and economic opportunity.

Two of the biggest issues the research hub found for the island were the closures of schools and an unstable economy after thousands left.

Kenelma Figueroa is a UCF student studying English who left the island with her family. Figueroa’s home in Manuabo, Puerto Rico was damaged in the hurricane. Her home was a few miles from where the eye of the hurricane landed.

She said she refused to leave even after she was left without power for seven months. Figueroa said she spent more time without her daughter.

“In October, I had to make the quick decision in sending my youngest daughter (now 14) to Orlando to live with her big sister (now 31), because her school was closed,” Figueroa said.

UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub and the Center of Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College found at least 265 schools on the island closed down after Hurricane Maria, which led to a loss of almost 40,000 students.

Dr. Fernando Rivera, director of the research hub, said the loss of so many educated young people is not good for the island.

“There has to be a tip of the balance for young Puerto Ricans to making sure young Puerto Rican families stay in Puerto Rico and actually populate the island” Dr. Rivera said. “If those economic opportunities improve, I think a lot of Puerto Ricans will go back. Somehow, we are a small island and people are attached to that small island.”

The research also showed the population of the island could drop below 3 million by 2023.

“There’s going to be a period of stabilization,” Dr. Rivera said. “How soon? How far? We don’t know yet. But it’s an issue of concern.”

Figueroa said she wants to return to the island one day and take the knowledge she gained to help those in need.

Dr. Rivera said an increase in affordable housing and accessible language training would help Puerto Ricans who immigrated to the states after the natural disaster.