SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – There have been three muses in Ramoncito "El Andino" Rodríguez's life: love, lament and la isla, Puerto Rico.
The founder of one of the oldest musical acts here, Rodríguez croons boleros and lyrical anthems that at times quicken the heart and at others create a daydreamy lull. Many of them are homages to his motherland, love songs to this Caribbean island. It was a place he never wanted to leave.
But leave, he did.
Rodríguez reluctantly abandoned Puerto Rico after several feet of floodwater spilled into his home during Hurricane Maria in September, destroying his instruments, albums and handwritten compositions. The 78-year-old joined hundreds of thousands of other islanders who boarded flights in the past five months, creating a growing diaspora that, as time passes, is increasingly unlikely to return. Rodríguez and his wife, like so many others, picked Florida, and their stateside sojourn was supposed to be temporary.
They didn't expect stability back home to be so elusive for so long.
"I'm still here," Rodríguez said with a sigh from his niece's house in Homestead, Fla., in mid-February. If the past decade of Puerto Rican history is any indication, his stay could become permanent. "Destiny will decide what happens next."
Even before Maria strafed the region, a record number of Puerto Ricans were realizing that the declining island might be where their heart is but cannot be where their feet stay. Nearly 500,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland during the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, pushing the stateside Puerto Rican population past the number living on the island last year — an estimated 3.3 million.
The government of Puerto Rico's guess is that by the end of 2018, 200,000 more residents will have left the U.S. territory for good. It would mean another drop of more than 5 percent in the island's population.
Experts say the storm and its widespread devastation undoubtedly has sped up the pace of migration as residents have dealt with extended power outages, communication lapses, infrastructure failures and, in some cases, isolation. What already was the largest exodus in the island's history now includes people fleeing in droves simply to achieve some sense of normalcy.
Five months after the tempest, tens of thousands in Puerto Rico haven't had electricity since the hurricane, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that one in 10 customers still won't have it back at the end of March.
Nearly 58,000 homes here have roofs made of blue tarp while they await federal assistance; more than 437,000 residents — about two in every five who applied so far — have received money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for home repairs.
For many, the future feels ominous.
Victor Dominguez set a June deadline. If Puerto Rico doesn't get the lights back on and move the economy, the mortgage banker will take his family elsewhere.
"I am very attached to my island, and my preference is to stay here, but I have to think what's best for my son," the 39-year-old said. "I'm in a moment in which I have to be very observant about what's happening and be flexible."
Immediately after the storm, Dominguez sent his family to the U.S. for two weeks while he continued working and taking care of their home. When schools in Florida announced that they would take in Puerto Rican students, he and his wife considered enrolling their 10-year-old. But as long as he had a job on the island, the family decided to work and wait it out. Many of his colleagues and neighbors did not.
"Combined with this economic crisis, this was a perfect storm for the country to just empty," he said. "There's still a lot of people, but I hear about people who are leaving on a weekly basis. I've spoken to people who have this hope of coming back to Puerto Rico, but I've also heard from people who are happy to have permanent stability."