Like many thousands of Puerto Ricans on the mainland United States, Elizabeth Guerrero Laracuente, a Kendall real estate agent, has been insistently trying — and failing — to reach her 72-year-old mother on the hurricane-ravaged island for three days, virtually ‘round the clock.
She’s trying to stay calm and keep the faith. But it’s getting hard, she said.
Like so many others, Guerrero, 50, has tried contacting her loved ones, who live in the countryside outside the western town of San Germán, through any means of communication she can think of — by phone, by email and by posting messages on social media apps and sites, where chat groups have sprung up to exchange information and plead for news from relatives on the island. She sleeps with her cellphone in hand and wakes up several times a night to scan social-media posts for any word from her mother, Blanca Iris Larancuente.
“I am waiting for a message, to hear my mother’s voice, to know she’s OK,” Guerrero said Friday at Isla del Encanto, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Kendall that was collecting donations for relief on the island, devastated by Hurricane Maria. “I am praying and God tells me she’s fine, but I’m human and I can’t stop worrying.”
But with only spotty communications in the San Juan metro area and with the rest of the island of 3.5 million virtually cut off from the rest of the world, getting even the slightest bit of news from relatives and friends, or at least reassurance from someone else that they’re safe, is difficult if not impossible.
“I spent countless hours on Facebook, on Twitter, to try to piece together information,” said Anthony Williams, a special projects manager with a Miami consulting firm. He has been trying to find news about his mother, Minerva Rivera Vega, 67, and other relatives, or their neighborhood of Jaime L. Drew in the southern city of Ponce, to no avail.
“The only thing I have been able to find on social media is that it was totally flooded. No other words, no pictures, nothing,” he said. “I have read thousands of posts from other people. But everything south of the mountains is incommunicado.”
On Friday, Isla del Encanto was a full-fledged display of solidarity with those on the island. Dozens of people, some wearing caps and t-shirts emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag, arrived with donations and stayed for lunch. There were hugs between strangers. Two people used their cellphones to record greetings from diners to relatives on the island; they planned to post them to Puerto Rican groups on Facebook in the hope that someone there would see the messages.
But amid the camaraderie, worry reigned. The lack of communication, desbelief over the vast extent and degree of damage and flooding were the dominant subject of conversation.
While they waited for plates of food at the kitchen window, a group of waiters fretted they couldn’t reach relatives on the island
“Were you able to talk to your people down there?” one asked another.
“Nothing yet,” came the answer.
Alba Castillo Alfaro, 75, a retired teacher and Cutler Bay resident, said she has unsuccessfuly tried calling her brother, sister-in-law and nephew in Toa Baja, a municipality on the San Juan outskirts hit by severe flooding, “a thousand times. Or more.”
In desperation, she tried numbers for police, hospitals and other civic institutions in the neighborhood, with no luck.
“I get a recording that the call can’t be connected,” she said.
Like many others, Castillo has resorted to closely scanning videos, photos and TV news reports from the town to see if she spots the building her brother lives in, or his street, but has been unable to identify anything.
Nearby, Guerrero said she thought of trying to get on a flight to San Juan as airline service restarts to go search for her family members. Her mother took shelter at a sister’s house that was better built, but it’s near a river and a a ravine. But she’s not sure going to the battered island now is even feasible.
“I want to go find my mother, but everything is up in the air. I don’t know if I can get there, if there is gasoline, if I can rent a car,” Guerrero said, echoing the feelings of many Puerto Ricans outside the island. “My hands are tied and I don’t know what to do.”
Follow Andres Viglucci on Twitter: @AndresViglucci