Raymond Perez Jr. is a year and 1,500 miles removed from the howling winds and torrential rain of the hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico and plunged the island territory into darkness.
A former casino worker on the island, the 20-year-old has a new job as a blackjack and roulette dealer on the swing shift at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, and a new life.
But like thousands of Puerto Ricans who left after Hurricane Maria, Perez is between worlds. He shares a two-bedroom townhome in Glen Burnie with his father, who also fled to become a table games supervisor at Horseshoe, and as many as six other newly hired casino workers from the island staying at the house.
His mother remains in Puerto Rico, where she has a solid government job. His sister, a medical student, is still there, too.
“Puerto Rico is all I ever knew, and it was scary to come over here because you didn't know what was going to happen,” Perez said. “You think about it all the time: Do you want to go back? But I have no intention of leaving.”
Perez is among up to 200,000 residents of Puerto Rico believed by researchers to have left the American territory in the year since the Category 4 Maria devastated the island, seeking better-paying jobs and relief from power outages, water-system issues and a struggling economy. A dozen found work at the Baltimore casino, which needs experienced dealers and anticipates hiring 18 more — most for blackjack, roulette or craps tables — before the end of the month.
The competition for experienced dealers is intense in Maryland — which has six casinos — and surrounding states with legalized gambling, including Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Horseshoe, which employs about 1,400 people, has seen revenue decline since the December 2016 opening of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor, about 43 miles away. But Horseshoe has experienced greater than anticipated interest in table games such as blackjack, roulette and craps. In recent years it has reduced the number of slot machines to make way for more table games, and hired more dealers.
Horseshoe general manager Erin Chamberlin called finding a new source of such dealers in the exodus from Puerto Rico a “win-win” for the casino and the workers.
But the new employees must push past harrowing memories of one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike American citizens. An estimated 2,975 people died on the island because of the storm.
Table games dealer Yandres Colon, 21, was on the roof of his grandmother’s house when Maria barreled into Puerto Rico last Sept. 20, with winds of up to 150 miles per hour. The 19-year-old steeled himself and frantically bailed water.
“I had to do it,” he said. “We didn’t want the roof falling in.”
The Perez family was together in their home on Puerto Rico’s west side when Maria struck.
Raymond Sr., 51, recalls gazing out a window at a surreal scene: trees toppling and limbs flying in the park bordering his home.
“There is nothing in the park left,” he said. “Thank God my home didn't have any damage.”
In Maria’s aftermath, Chamberlin happened to have a conversation with a Horseshoe chef who is from Puerto Rico.
“He showed us pictures — it was months after Maria had come through — and I was crying,” Chamberlin said. “It was his family home. He was like, ‘This is how they’re living.’ It was unbelievable. What he showed me broke my heart.”
After that, Chamberlin said, “We said, let’s go for it. Let’s see if anybody would like to come over and work. It kind of just snowballed. People need jobs and we would love to have experienced folks.”
The elder Perez, a former casino dealer and manager, was working with a Puerto Rican tourism commission last year that had to cut its budget in the hurricane’s wake. A friend of his at Horseshoe called and said: "Maybe you could try my casino."
Perez responded that plenty of others might like jobs, too. Now he’s become a conduit for others seeking to relocate. And he’s like a dad for many of the younger transplants from the island.
He invites the new hires to live in his home in a quiet subdivision about 15 minutes from the casino.
“I open my house and give them the opportunity to stay there,” he said. “We have to help each other. Once they have a couple of checks they’re able to move to another house, and that gives me the opportunity to bring more people.”
He originally rented the house for himself and his son. But it’s become akin to a dormitory, with mattresses on the floor.
Since the casino must be staffed around the clock, the dealers don’t all work the same hours. It seems somebody is always either heading to Horseshoe or going to bed.
“Never a dull moment,” said Raymond Jr., who has been working from 8 o’clock at night to 4 in the morning. After working at a casino in Puerto Rico, he is accustomed to odd hours and to a place where the lights never turn off.
The house has just one bathroom and Raymond Sr. said everybody knows it’s his from 8:00 to 8:20 in the morning when he’s getting ready for work.
“We collect some money to create a budget for food,” the father said. “Breakfast and dinner we make a grocery list and we buy for everybody. Me and my son were Boy Scouts, so we’re used to preparing foods for large amounts of people.”
Raymond Jr. previously worked at one of Puerto Rico’s 17 casinos, which must compete for limited local dollars in the sluggish economy. While initially hampered by flooding and curfews, most casinos were up and running within a few months. But the island remained beset with power and water-system issues and has struggled to regain lost tourism dollars amid continued media coverage of the hurricane deaths and damage.
Not yet 21, he looks almost too young for casino work.
“A lot of people say how are you working as a dealer?” said Perez, wearing his Horseshoe uniform of black slacks and white shirt with a gold bow tie and vest. State law says dealers can be employed at 18 but can’t gamble until 21. “But I've been able to make friends. I have people that come to see me at my table.”
Since the games require math, dealers must train their brains to be calculators amid the ringing and whirring of slot machines and other background noise. They are expected to be relentlessly cheerful on the job.
"My son is very jolly," his father said. "Everybody likes the way he deals the games."
While dealers earn a salary based on experience, their take-home pay depends largely on tips.
Personable young dealers such as Raymond Jr. can help casinos attract their most coveted demographic — free-spending men in their 20s and 30s.
“If they can chat and hang out and give your players a positive experience, that’s a plus,” said James Karmel, a casino analyst and history professor at Harford Community College. Table games, he said, are known to particularly draw young male players — “and they’re attractive to casinos because they’re buying drinks and going to restaurants.”
The younger Perez speaks English to customers but is bilingual. Many patrons know he is from Puerto Rico and ask him about the hurricane, which remains the subject of political dispute over its death toll and aftermath.
President Donald J. Trump recently tweeted that when he left after inspecting the hurricane damage “they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000.”
The estimate of 2,975 deaths comes from a study by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University that was commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico.
Trump said release of the higher figure “was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”
The elder Perez said he long believed the initial estimates were too conservative.
“We know for sure the number was really high,” he said. “The thing is, how many people died that night and how many died as a consequence? There were a lot of people that needed insulin and had to have refrigerators. We had no power and we’d be running out of ice and water. So they died because of that, and that is part of the consequence of the hurricane. But they didn't count it.”
The exodus from Puerto Rico began long before the hurricane. With its economy mired in recession, the island has been losing population for more than a decade, according to the Pew Research Center.
But experts say Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico’s population of about 3.3 million is unprecedented.
The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York's Hunter College estimated last year that between 114,000 and 213,000 residents would leave the island annually in Maria’s aftermath. That would mean Puerto Rico could lose about 14 percent of its population from 2017 to 2019.
Other area casinos have also hired workers from the island territory. A spokesperson for Live Casino & Hotel in Hanover said it has “about half-dozen new hires” from Puerto Rico and that “the dealers themselves are spreading the word and interested applicants are reaching out to us.”
MGM National Harbor said it employs “a number of residents who were displaced from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Their experience in the gaming and hospitality industry were valuable qualities that made them attractive job candidates at our resort.”
Horseshoe’s Chamberlin said she and Patrick Chan, vice president of gaming operations, were happy to land the uprooted workers.
It took time to identify dealer candidates, conduct background checks and spread the word that Horseshoe was hiring.
Kelvin Rosado, 31, didn't hear about the opportunity right away. Seeking a better job after the hurricane, the casino dealer left Puerto Rico and ended up with a North Carolina cleaning services company.
He didn’t see his wife, 1 1/2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son for eight months.
"It was very hard. I lost all the holidays," said Rosado, who is still learning English. He missed his daughter's first birthday, connecting with her only through streaming video. "I cry a lot," he said.
But, with Perez's help, Rosado landed a job with Horseshoe in June and now rents a house in the same complex as Perez in Glen Burnie. Rosado's wife also works as a Horseshoe dealer and his mother just arrived to help take care of their son — who just started public school — and daughter.
"Everybody is helping each other," said Colon, who recently moved out of Perez's home and got an apartment in anticipation of his mother arriving soon from Puerto Rico. He doesn’t have a car but gets rides to the casino from his Puerto Rican friends.
"We're making it," he said.