Like many other Puerto Ricans on Long Island, Ana María Caraballo was losing sleep and worrying about loved ones on the Caribbean island ravaged by Hurricane Maria’s driving rain and fierce, swirling winds.
Their voices had fallen silent. There were no calls, no text messages, no social media posts.
She hadn’t heard from her 64-year-old father, who lived in the family home in Ponce, a southern coastal municipality of about 190,000 people.
“I was dying of worry,” said Caraballo, 34, a Middle Island resident who is a morning drive-time personality for the Spanish-language station La Nueva Fiesta, WBON/98.5 FM.
A relative and a friend of hers drove hours along damaged roads from the Puerto Rican capital San Juan to check on her dad. Days after the storm, they found Miguel Caraballo Pietri, a heart attack and stroke survivor, alone and disoriented in a dark house. A light pole had fallen on the roof and water had poured inside.
On Sept. 29, Caraballo Pietri was among scores of storm refugees arriving at Kennedy Airport, in what could be the vanguard of a larger migratory post-storm wave. He came to live with her.
“Those of us who were at the airport waiting for relatives recognized each other from looking at our eyes. We went from a lot of worry and sadness to great relief,” Ana María Caraballo said. “And people were coming through the gates and hugging each other and we all clapped.”
Her story exemplifies what experts say could become a spike in migration to the mainland from the U.S. territory whose people are American citizens and have strong ties here. Most are expected to move to parts of Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and other regions where Puerto Ricans have concentrated over the years.
How many will come to Long Island is unknown.
The refugees will be attempting to establish a semblance of stability. They will need jobs, housing, day care and schools for their children, and access to health care and prescriptions.
Jennifer Hernández already has brought her sister, her sister’s husband, their 2-year-old daughter and her 68-year-old grandmother, Lilian Martínez, to live with her and her husband in a one-bedroom apartment in Patchogue. Hernández is Caraballo’s sister-in-law.
She and her husband, Miguel Caraballo, gave up their bed for her grandmother to use. She and everyone else fit, however they can, in their living room.
“I have mattresses all over the place, leaning on the walls,” said Hernández, 30, a warehouse supervisor at a Holbrook thrift store. She wants to bring her mom and two sisters to Long Island, she said, “even if I have to live paycheck to paycheck” to do so.
She wouldn’t feel comfortable here knowing her niece didn’t have milk to drink in Puerto Rico, and she worries about others still stranded in isolated areas.
Her sister, Niulska Hernández, 20, said she was starting to become desperate in Ponce.
“All we had left were the walls, without a roof,” Niulska Hernández said. “There was no electricity, no water and mosquitoes were everywhere. . . . It was raining inside the house.”
She is looking to place her 2-year-old daughter, Andrea, in a Head Start program so she can look for a job. Her husband, Héctor Feliciano, a barber, is seeking work.
Only time will tell how many will return or stay, said George Siberón, 70, a Baldwin resident and community activist. He brought his mother, Antonia Rodríguez, 89, and his stepdad, Julio López Mercado, 88, from Hatillo on Puerto Rico’s northern coast to live in Brooklyn.
His daughter is considering moving with her husband and two kids from Bayamón, a municipality in the northern coastal valley, to Orlando, he said.
“There was an exodus from Puerto Rico to begin with” because of the struggling economy, Siberón said. “When you don’t have electricity and you don’t have work and you don’t have a job that’s necessarily waiting, and the infrastructure is completely devastated, there’s a very strong sense that it’s going to take years to get some normalcy.”