Cultivating Compassion for Puerto Rico's 'Climate Refugees'

Students learn about a few of the thousands of people who have fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In small groups, students  discuss their stories and consider how they may be feeling about what has happened.  This companion lesson has students explore the climate refugee crisis worldwide.     


In pairs, ask students to share something that makes them feel "at home."  Ask a few volunteers to share with the full group.


Check Agenda and Objectives

Explain that in today’s lesson we’ll be hearing stories from people who left Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island on September 20, 2017. 

Though the news media has largely moved on from this story, the devastation in the wake of the hurricane continues to impact families in Puerto Rico and across the U.S.


Puerto Rico Devastated by Hurricane Maria

Play the following video to remind us of what happened on September 20 and the days that followed:

Discuss the video or go straight into the student reading (below), before discussing both according to the questions below.



Student Reading

Invite students to read the pdf handout "Tragedy in Puerto Rico" (it is also included at the end of this lesson).  After reading it, discuss it by asking students some or all of the questions below.  

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what you just read?  What stood out for you about what you just read?
  • Were you aware of the devastation Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico on September 20?  How?
  • When did you last see a story about Puerto Rico in the news?
  • Do you think this means that the people of Puerto Rico have been able to return to their lives as normal?  Has the devastation created by Hurricane Maria been dealt with?  Have the problems of the island been resolved?
  • How do you feel about the fact that the devastation of Puerto Rico, and the struggle of its people, is no longer in the news?
  • What does the article say about the Puerto Rico before the storm ever made landfall?  How has this continued to impact the island’s relief efforts?
  • What does the article say about small islands and large climate events?  What does it say about the future of small islands like Puerto Rico in this regard?


As you discuss the questions, elicit or explain that although we now hear little in the news about Puerto Rico, the crisis continues:

  • Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was devastated by the storm, and recovery is expected to take years, causing huge economic pain for island residents, who are American citizens. The Climate Impact Lab estimates that Hurricane María will reduce per capita income in Puerto Rico by 21% over the next 15 years. 
  • In the three months following the hurricane, hundreds of thousands of people living in Puerto Rico left for the U.S. mainland.  The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College expects this mass exodus to continue: They estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up 14% of the population in the next several years.  
  • Meanwhile, refugees from the hurricane are trying to make new homes for themselves in communities around the U.S., including in Florida and New York.  Many hope to someday return to their homes.


Climate Migration Stories

Post these six migrant stories (also included below) around the room, each with the questions underneath the story.  Split your class into six groups, asking each to stand by one of the migrant stories that you have posted. 

Invite each group to read their story, then discuss the questions posted underneath for up to 10 minutes.  After 10 minutes, ask groups to rotate around the room clockwise, moving to the next story.  Ask them once again to read the story and discuss the same questions underneath.  If time allows, have the groups rotate once more, going through the same process. 

At the end of the rotation, bring the group back together again, asking some or all of the following questions for discussion

  • What were some of the similarities and differences between the stories?
  • What did you learn about why people left Puerto Rico?  Did they want to leave? Why or why not?
  • What do you think lies ahead for the people who left Puerto Rico?
  • What do they say about leaving Puerto Rico?
  • What do they say about returning to Puerto Rico?
  • In what ways can we as individuals help those who have lost their homes in Puerto Rico?
  • What should we expect our government to do to help those who have been displaced? 



Ask students to share one wish they have the families whose stories we have discussed today.



Student Reading:
Tragedy in Puerto Rico

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States whose residents are American citizens. The hurricane caused massive destruction across the island, creating a crisis for millions of people. According to Scientific American:

Hurricane Maria’s destruction on Puerto Rico could spawn one of the largest mass migration events in the United States’ recent history, experts say, as tens of thousands of storm victims flee the island territory to rebuild their lives on the U.S. mainland.  ... "Whether that migration will be permanent or temporary is still anyone’s guess," Garcia added. "Much depends on the relief package that Congress negotiates."

Public Radio International reported on the many Puerto Rican college students who have moved to the mainland to continue their education.

Puerto Rico was already losing population because of its economic challenges before Hurricane Maria. ... The devastation wrought by Maria is expected to accelerate that exodus. And the wave of new arrivals to the mainland could be considered environmental migrants because of the role of climate change in making hurricanes more intense. ... This environmental migration is likely to only make Puerto Rico’s economic problems worse. ...

It’s been known for a long time that Puerto Rico was vulnerable to the violent storms that are becoming more and more frequent as the climate warms. Slate reports:

"These storms are big, islands are small; if they get a direct hit it can overcome the entire place," said John Mutter, a professor of earth and environmental sciences and of international and public affairs at Columbia University.  "If all the first responders are unable to respond because the whole place is trashed, it creates a whole new level of disaster."

Poor communities are always hit the hardest in events like this, Mutter said. In the case of Puerto Rico—where nearly half the population is below the poverty level, the territory has no vote in Congress, and Texas and Florida are [competing] ... with the territory for limited federal disaster resources—inequity in recovery could be [made worse] ...

"This is not a one–off event," Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association, said. "We are going to see more of these. We ought to contribute to their recovery much more than we have done in the past, just as we plan to do in Texas and Florida.



Climate Migration Stories


1.  Rosamari’s Story

"Coming here was a big relief," says Rosamari Palerm. Rosamari was the first student from Puerto Rico to arrive at St. Thomas University, a private Catholic school in Miami Gardens, Florida, after Hurricane Maria struck.  The electricity, clean water and cell service available on campus — not to mention college classes — stand in stark contrast to conditions at home.

Much of Puerto Rico is still without power. Water contamination is widespread.  The scope of the disaster there is still not completely understood.  When the winds died down, sewage water flooded the streets outside her family’s apartment, the electric grid was down, and life as Palerm knew it was on hold. "I worked at a mall and the mall is completely destroyed, so I couldn’t work," Palerm says.  Classes were suspended at Sacred Heart University where Palerm was a senior biology major.

So when Palerm heard through family on the mainland that St. Thomas University was offering free room and board and tuition discounts to students displaced by the hurricane, she jumped at the chance to transfer.  "I literally left with nothing.  I just had my clothes," Palerm says. At the airport it hit her: "I’m probably not going to come back for a while." But Palerm’s family ties hold her tightly, and she says she wants to go back to Puerto Rico eventually. "I love my little island. I want to be a part of helping it get better."

(Adapted from a story by PRI’s The World, 10/19/17)


  • What might Rosamari Palerm have been feeling while in Puerto Rico after the storm?
  • What do you think she is feeling now that she’s in Florida?
  • What were the reasons for her to leave Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think lies ahead for Rosamari?


2.  Ana María’s Story

Ana María Caraballo, 34, a Middle Island, NY, resident who is a morning drive–time personality for the Spanish–language station La Nueva Fiesta, feared for her family back in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. "I was dying of worry," she said.

A relative and a friend drove hours along damaged roads from the Puerto Rican capital San Juan to check on Ana Maria’s 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, Ana Maria’s father was among scores of storm refugees arriving at New York City’s Kennedy Airport, in what could be the start 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." 

(Adapted from a story in Newsday, 10/8/17)



  • What might Ana Maria Carabello have been feeling while her father was in still Puerto Rico? 
  • What might her father have been feeling before coming to New York?
  • What do you think Ana Maria is feeling now that her father is in New York? 
  • What do you think her father might be feeling?
  • What were the reasons for him to leave Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think lies ahead for Ana Maria and her father?



3.  Lydia’s Story

After the hurricane, Lydia Acevedo boarded a flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Homestead, Florida, with her 14–year–old daughter, 22–year–old daughter, her son–in–law, 1–year–old grandson and her 72–year–old mother.

"Having to separate is not easy, but we have to think positive. We have to think that this will pass soon and we will be able to reunite," says Lydia with tears in her eyes. Lydia says she had to take the role of head of household when the hurricane hit. Her husband was helping everyone else in Puerto Rico and she had to take the lead in looking for food and water for her family.

Lydia faced a mixture of traumas, including her fear for the well–being of her 1–year–old grandson, Mateo, who suffers from asthma. He was running out of formula, and then there was the heat and humidity and the insects that come with it. Mosquito bites still cover part of Mateo's cheeks and arms.

Lydia has family in Illinois and for now plans to stay in a hotel. But like everyone else aboard she vows to return to Puerto Rico to reunite with the piece of their hearts left behind."

(Adapted from a report on CNN, 9/27/17)



  • What might Lydia Acevedo have been feeling while she was still in Puerto Rico after the storm?
  • What do you think Lydia is feeling now that she’s on her way to Florida?  What do you think her husband might be feeling?
  • What were the reasons for her to leave Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think lies ahead for Lydia and her family?



4.  Jennifer’s Story

Jennifer Hernandez already has brought her sister, her sister’s husband, their 2–year–old daughter and her 68–year–old grandmother to come live with her and her husband in their one–bedroom apartment in Long Island, NY.

Jennifer and her husband Miguel 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 thrift store.

Jennifer 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. 

Jennifer’s sister, Niulska, said she was starting to become desperate in Ponce, Puerto Rico. "All we had left were the walls, without a roof," Niulska said. "There was no electricity, no water and mosquitoes were everywhere. . . . It was raining inside the house." 

(Adapted from a story in Newsday, 10/8/17)



  • What do you think Jennifer Hernandez was feeling  about her family in Puerto Rico after the storm? 
  • What do you think her sister Niulska was feeling while in Puerto Rico after the storm?
  • What do you think Jennifer is feeling now that her sister, her sister’s husband, their 2–year–old daughter, and her 68–year–old grandmother are with her in Long Island? 
  • What do you think her sister Niulska Hernandez is feeling? 
  • What were the reasons for Niulska and her family to leave Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think lies ahead for Jennifer and her family?



5.  Vanessa’s Story

Vanessa Carbia is aboard a plane taking her and her three children, ages 11 to 19, from Puerto Rico to Florida.  In the back cargo section of the plane are Vanessa’s two Yorkies, Pandylucas and Benjamin. Vanessa wouldn't leave her home without them.

Vanessa says that back in Puerto Rico, she only had food for four days and was left rationing it, never thinking she would have to evacuate on a flight with other families. With a heart heavy from the devastation and the worry that her children would be traumatized, Vanessa tried to manage her children's fears and worries while their father was working.  Food and water shortages, she says, were difficult to reckon with. 

"When you see children waiting in line for food and water," Vanessa says and pauses. "That was the most impactful."  Vanessa and her children plan to stay in a hotel for now, though she has family in Arizona. She plans to go back to Puerto Rico. "My whole life is there," says Carbia.

(Adapted from a report on CNN, 9/27/17)



  • What might Vanessa Carbia have been feeling while still in Puerto Rico after the storm?
  • What do you think Vanessa is feeling now that she’s on her way to the mainland?
  • What were the reasons for her to leave Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think lies ahead for Vanessa and her family?



6.  George’s Story

"Only time will tell how many will return or stay, said George Siberón, 70, a Baldwin, NY, resident and community activist.

George brought his mother, Antonia, 89, and his stepdad, Julio, 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."

(Adapted from a story in Newsday, 10/8/17)



  • What might George Siberón have been feeling while his mother and stepfather were still in Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think George is feeling now that his parents are in New York?  What do you think his parents might be feeling?
  • What were the reasons for her to leave Puerto Rico?
  • What do you think lies ahead for George and his parents?