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Couple flees storm-torn Puerto Rico homeland for Gainesville
Alberto and Sonia Rosario join son, unsure when they might return
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Alberto and Sonia Rosario during an interview with a reporter on Thursday about their exodus to Gainesville from Puerto Rico. - photo by David Barnes

At the urging of their three sons living in Georgia, a Puerto Rican couple took an expensive flight out of San Juan.

They left on the very day President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were landing on Air Force One at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to see firsthand the destruction and misery left behind by Hurricane Maria.

On a recent afternoon, Alberto and Sonia Rosario spent time with their son, Angel, at the downtown square in Gainesville. They’ve also been staying with two other sons who live in Gwinnett County.

The Rosarios paid $1,200 each for a one-way ticket out of Puerto Rico. They know of others who paid much more than that for a seat on a plane.

Though the Rosarios want to return home someday, for the moment they have no idea when that day will come.

Angel Rosario said he and his brothers are glad they were able to get their parents out of Puerto Rico where people are waiting in long lines for hours to get basic necessities.

“We were worried because there was no communication,” he said.

Sonia Rosario, 67, retired after 31 years working as a police officer in the central mountain town of Manati 32 miles west of San Juan. Her husband, who soon turns 66, is a tourism official in Manati.

The Rosarios said they had been through hurricanes in Puerto Rico before but none could compare with Maria’s sustained 155 mph winds during the wee hours Sept. 20.

“The wind made sounds like a lion roaring,” Alberto Rosario recounted in Spanish. “It was hair raising. We’d never heard anything like that before during the 42 years living in that same house.”

The couple said they lost power shortly after midnight and spent the night moving from room to room, staying away from the boarded windows and at times huddling to pray.

Alberto said that at the break of dawn, they peeked out the door to see that their cement-block house had weathered the storm. Some neighbors were not as fortunate. Maria had ripped apart roofs and splintered wooden structures.

It was only after they ventured out of their subdivision in Vega Baja, and drove on the state highway toward Manati, that they began to see the magnitude of Maria’s destruction.

“Electric poles toppled across the highway, other poles were held up by power lines and you could no longer drive or see the road,” he said. “The trees left standing were burned and dry without leaves. Everything green turned brown.”

Less than 10 percent of the approximately 3.5 million islanders who live in the U.S. territory have electricity. Officials estimate it will take many months to revamp the electric grid.

About half the population has no running water. Thousands are without a roof over their heads and the $1.8 billion tourism industry that employs more than 63,000 is in tatters.

Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917 by act of Congress, and since then they’ve been able to travel freely to and from the U.S. mainland without a passport. After Hawaii became the 50th state of the nation, it was once thought Puerto Rico was on a path to become the 51st state.

In a State of the Union Address in 1989, President George H.W. Bush addressed Puerto Rico’s political situation.

“I’ve longed believed that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine their own political future,” he told the nation. “Personally, I strongly favor statehood. But I urge the Congress to take the necessary steps to allow the people to decide in a referendum.”

Since that address, internal island politics have very evenly swayed between those who want statehood and advocates of the current commonwealth status. A small minority want independence.

Congress has yet to take steps to hold a binding referendum in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican migration to the mainland has spiked over the past 15 years because of the Caribbean island’s economic woes, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 84,000 Puerto Ricans left the island for the United States in 2014 and the exodus has continued since Puerto Rico defaulted on its public debt of more than $70 billion last year.

Almost 87,000 Puerto Ricans live in Georgia, making them the second largest Latino population in the state behind Mexicans, who number more than 550,000, according to the U.S. Census.

Alberto Rosario said he’s seen three of his sons leave Puerto Rico for Georgia looking for a better future. Rosario said a fourth son is a doctor who continues to work on the island.

“Only God know what the future holds,” the father said. “Puerto Rico is economically bankrupt. People are leaving, especially the young talent because the economic situation is not good. There aren’t enough good jobs on the island to sustain them.”

Sonia Rosario said she wants to return to Puerto Rico where she has a lot of family and friends.

“As soon as things get a little bit back to normal, we want to go back to Puerto Rico,” she said. “But they say electricity could be out six months, maybe a year.”

Over the past eight years the Rosarios have made many trips to Northeast Georgia to visit their sons, but they admitted this latest trip was not planned.

“We feel at home here,” Alberto Rosario said. “When family is together everything’s fine.”