Hurricane

No cell service in Puerto Rico? Drive to a highway in San Juan and pull over

Ashley Gonzalez, center, points her cell phone towards a cell tower as she and others try to place calls to the U.S. mainland outside of Dorado on PR22 in Puerto Rico on Saturday.
Ashley Gonzalez, center, points her cell phone towards a cell tower as she and others try to place calls to the U.S. mainland outside of Dorado on PR22 in Puerto Rico on Saturday. CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

The cars lining the shoulders of highways along Puerto Rico’s capital might look like they’ve stalled because of Hurricane Maria’s engine-killing floodwaters, mechanical victims of a natural disaster. But they haven’t been stranded.

On the contrary, the cars are a sign of hope — and ingenuity: Their drivers pulled over to raise their phones into the air, in search of elusive cell service.

What began as a rare sight on Thursday, the day after the storm, in a few choice spots — such as the middle of the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge over the San José Lagoon — turned into a widespread phenomenon by Saturday, when lines of as many as 50 vehicles at a time bordered long stretches of highway.

Somehow, despite having no means of communication other than word of mouth and maybe a battery-operated radio, Puerto Ricans discovered precisely where cell towers appeared to work — and flocked to those locations.

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A woman breaks into tears as she finally reaches relatives on the U.S. mainland. About forty vehicles pulled to the shoulder as locals tried to place calls to the U.S. mainland near a cell tower outside of Dorado on PR22 in Puerto Rico on Saturday. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

“Beautiful,” Wilder Ríos, 53, said after describing his calls moments earlier with daughters in Kissimmee, and Utica, New York. None had heard from him, his wife or his mother since before Maria knocked out Puerto Rico’s entire power grid, and virtually all cell service outside metro San Juan. “We cried. We’re happy. They knew nothing from us.”

Most Puerto Ricans lost cell service when Maria rolled ashore Wednesday; a lucky few AT&T customers in San Juan were spared in certain parts of the city.

“Do you have AT&T?” marveled strangers who asked people whose phones rang, buzzed and chimed.

A fellow Maria refugee had told Aracely Salgado, who has been living in an emergency shelter after she lost “practically everything” in her Corozal home, about service from the Claro provider near one of its towers, heading east on Route 22 in Dorado, west of San Juan. Saturday morning, despite the driving rain, Salgado and her husband, Antonio Hernández, celebrated getting through to her aunt in Boston.

“My aunt was crying,” Salgado said. She wore flip flops and purple pajama pants decorated with penguins, and pointed to her modest handset, praising it as an “Obama phone” provided by the government for low-income users. She reached her family in Massachusetts, but her husband still couldn’t contact his relatives in the southern Puerto Rican city of Ponce.

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A woman uses a towel to shield herself from the rain as she attempts to call the U.S. mainland. About forty vehicles pulled to the shoulder as locals tried to place calls to the U.S. mainland near a cell tower outside of Dorado on PR22 in Puerto Rico on Saturday. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

“This has been a nightmare,” she said.

Salgado lent her phone to Linette Deida, 45, whose T-Mobile device was still dead.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Deida said into the phone. She had finally spoken to her sister, Doris, in Palatka.

“God is so great and so powerful that he sent me this little angel,” Deida said of Salgado.

Back in Florida, Doris Deida said Saturday morning her sister’s call had ended 72 hours of anguish. The call came in from a number unknown to her, but Deida recognized Puerto Rico’s 787 area code.

“We’ve been trying for days, trying to get a hold, checking on [Facebook] Messenger because I did hear that some people had communications through Messenger, I’m not sure how,” she said. “It was the best news I heard. A couple of minutes only — that’s all I needed to know: How were my mom and my dad?”

Some ventured into San Juan from afar, consuming precious fuel just so they could make the all-important “I’m OK” call.

“I had to speak to my brother in Los Angeles,” said Ivis González, who drove into San Juan from the western town of Hatillo at 5:30 a.m. Friday. “I hadn’t heard anything from anybody.”

Residents of La Perla in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico are left to their own devices as they begin to clean and remove debris and transport those affected by Hurricane Maria to the hospital on September 21, 2017.

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