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Puerto Rico Family Celebrates Their First Christmas In Florida


Since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, more than 200,000 people from the island have resettled in Florida. Now, by comparison, that is bigger than the Mariel boatlift, which brought around 125,000 Cubans to Florida in 1980. Because people arriving from Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, they might have an easier time adjusting to life on the mainland. NPR's Greg Allen spent time with a Puerto Rican family who are making a new home in Florida.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: A few days before Christmas, Grisel Robles and her husband, Manuel Morales, were - where else? - at the mall with Emma, their daughter, just 7 months old.

MANUEL MORALES: We are going to take a picture with Santa, her first picture with Santa.

ALLEN: Morales has been in Fort Lauderdale since October 3. He came to join his wife and their daughter to start a new life here in Florida. Robles and Morales say for them, the decision to leave Puerto Rico was easy after what they experienced in Hurricane Maria. Their home flooded a week and a half earlier in Hurricane Irma. Because of that, they rode out Hurricane Maria in Morales' grandmother's house in Toa Baja. After the storm passed, Morales says, the flood came.

MORALES: Once I go out, I see the water. And it just kept rising and rising. You know, I had to get my family out of there to a second-story building. And I had to go back, get my grandma 'cause she could barely walk. By the time I got to her, water was over my waist. And it kept rising.

ALLEN: When the water receded, they moved to a relative's house. But with no power or running water, Morales and Robles' biggest concern was ensuring the health of their daughter, then just 4 months old. Three days after the storm, Robles says, she and Emma managed to get on one of the first flights out of Puerto Rico.

GRISEL ROBLES: We were two hours on the (unintelligible) field...

MORALES: Oh, yeah.

ROBLES: ...Because we - they didn't have communication through the planes.

MORALES: The tower was closed.

ALLEN: Yeah.

MORALES: That plane was a JetBlue employees plane. I don't even know how we got that ticket. No, that was a miracle, you know?

ALLEN: Robles and daughter Emma stayed with a friend in Fort Lauderdale. Within days of arriving, she says, her daughter got a checkup, vaccinations and had health insurance. Morales had been busy since the storm at his job as a paramedic and supervisor at San Juan's airport. When he heard how much better the situation was for his daughter in Florida, he told his wife, I'm coming over and we'll start a new life there. The hardest part, he said, was telling his mother they were leaving.

MORALES: She was happy and sad at the same time. Sad 'cause we were leaving, but happy because we, you know - her granddaughter was going to be OK.

ROBLES: We really don't think about it. We just react because I'm...

ALLEN: At the mall waiting in line for Santa Claus, Emma is getting a little fussy. The baby needs a nap. After weeks of staying with friends, Robles and Morales recently moved into their own apartment. And they put up a Christmas tree. It's Emma's first Christmas, and they want a photo with Santa Claus to give her something to remember. Christmas, Morales says, is important to Puerto Ricans.

MORALES: 'Cause family gets together. I think that's the main part of Christmas for Puerto Ricans. You know, everyone gets together on Christmas. Maybe you didn't see your family during the entire year, but when it's Christmas everyone gets together.

ALLEN: Robles and Morales have a few family members in Florida - a sister in Orlando, an uncle in Tampa - but they doubt they'll see them over the holidays. After relocating, they both quickly found jobs. Robles is at Sam's Club. Morales is back working as a paramedic. He's just happy he has off today and can spend it with his family.

The line at the mall has moved. It's finally 7-month-old Emma's turn to sit on Santa Claus's lap for her first Christmas photo. It doesn't go well.




ALLEN: Not the happiest photo, but one Robles and Morales say they'll treasure. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.