“We’re alive and we’re fighting,” say some Puerto Ricans as they move on with life.
The good news out of San Juan came in a hurry for Natascha Otero-Santiago but it wouldn’t last long: Her mother’s 92-year-old friend, stranded on the fifth floor of a nursing home with no power, finally had a seat waiting for her on a private jet. It was leaving in 90 minutes.
Otero-Santiago, stuck in her office in Fort Lauderdale, had to find the elderly woman a ride and fast. So she pulled out her cellphone. And hailed an Uber.
“I was really surprised it was working,” the public relations executive said, recalling the Oct. 4 rescue. “I got a driver right away.”
Nearly a month after Hurricane Maria wiped out most of Puerto Rico’s electricity and cellular service, Uber has emerged as an app-based barometer for the most modern of recoveries. The ride-hailing service is operating at only about 20 percent of its capacity before the storm, largely confined to the San Juan area and its enclave of cell towers that at least offer spotty service.
I was really surprised it was working. I got a driver right away.
Natascha Otero-Santiago on Uber in Puerto Rico
“I’ve been busy,” said Giovanni Gonzalez, an Uber driver in San Juan who went back to work about two weeks ago. With long gas lines, Gonzalez said many residents opted to hire a driver instead of using their own car. And Maria left driving a mess: Missing traffic signals worsen gridlock as police step in to direct traffic, he said, and rains can all but shut down a road.
“It rains for 10 minutes, and it’s already flooded because everything is saturated,” he said.
Another problem for Gonzalez is spotty cellular service. While phones are working enough for customers to hail him, Gonzalez said he can’t count on a connection lasting long enough to record his full fare.
“When you have no cell service, it takes Uber a long time to end the trip,” he said during a telephone interview. “There are some rides when I had to tell them: I did this ride, but it didn’t record the trip.”
Uber spokeswoman Julie Robinson said the company secured about 10,000 gallons of fuel for drivers to combat shortages, but that a lack of cellular service has idled almost the entire fleet. Robinson said only about 15 percent of the company’s drivers were connected to the system last weekend.
Electricity is out for about 80 percent of the island. An Oct. 18 report from the Federal Communications Commission said 71 percent of the island’s cellular towers are out of service.
San Juan’s numbers look much better on the FCC report, with just 45 percent of its towers out of service — the lowest outage number for any area in the U.S. territory. Gonzalez said he’s taken riders to Walmart for groceries, restaurants and shops. His most recent fare: a trip to a San Juan mall.
Still, Gonzalez said business hasn’t been brisk enough for him to make it. He expects his trip to the mall to be his last as an Uber driver in Puerto Rico. The 29-year-old conducted a phone interview from the city’s airport, where he was waiting for a flight to take him to a friend’s home in Seattle.
“It’s very difficult here,” he said.
Nearly a month after Hurricane Maria wiped out most of Puerto Rico’s electricity and cellular service, Uber has emerged as an app-based barometer for the most modern of recoveries.
Uber’s skeleton fleet in San Juan was key to getting Margarita Berga de Lema to Miami two weeks after Maria hit. The 92-year-old retired airline executive was stranded without power in a nursing home, relying on daily food deliveries from staff.
Her best friend, Chia Otero, 89, was already in the Miami area when Maria hit, part of a long-planned visit with her daughter, Otero-Santiago. After the storm, the two were desperate to get Berga de Lema out of San Juan, especially after Maria left her without running water in the early days of recovery.
Otero-Santiago, director of digital strategy at Latin 2 Latin in Fort Lauderdale, grew up in Puerto Rico and had been part of the South Florida relief effort shuttling supplies to the island and helping residents flee to the mainland. Her volunteer work connected Otero-Santiago with the operator of an air ambulance leaving San Juan on October 4, with a last-minute opening for a seat.
“We called Margarita, because we knew we had to get her out of there as soon as possible,” said Otero, who was in her daughter’s office when news arrived about the open seat.
Berga de Lema got the call at 4 p.m. for a Trinity Air Ambulance flight leaving 90 minutes later. She thought she could get to the airport herself. “She said, ‘I’m calling my nephew,’” Otero recalled. “My daughter said, ‘No, you’re not calling anybody. We’re sending you an Uber. He’s on his way.’”
After tossing some clothes in a bag, Berga de Lema walked down five flight of steps to meet her driver, a man that Otero-Santiago’s phone only identifies as Moises.
“He told me, ‘Don’t worry, lady,’” Berga de Lema said in an interview Wednesday from Miami. Traffic was bad, and Otero-Santiago’s Uber app showed the car seeming to stop on its way to San Juan as the mother-and-daughter team followed the progress from Fort Lauderdale.
At one point, the pair in Florida had the pair in Puerto Rico on parallel phone conversations: the mother talking to Berga de Lema and the daughter to Moises. The driver drove his passenger to the private jet terminal, checking various runways until he found the waiting plane with the right tail numbers, completing the $40 trip.
“Moises,” Otero-Santiago said, “got five stars.”