Puerto Ricans leave battered island to join loved ones in Miami

Isabel Padro de Castañer hugs her 2-year-old granddaughter Lucia at Miami International Airport after the child arrived on a flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Isabel Padro de Castañer hugs her 2-year-old granddaughter Lucia at Miami International Airport after the child arrived on a flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Mara Moreno checked the phone again and again while she waited in the baggage claim area of Miami International Airport on Tuesday.

“Hello, have you landed yet?” Moreno said into the phone, excited to hear the voice of her daughter. “Finally, they’re here!”

Moreno’s daughter, Stephanie Santiago, had been waiting for five days with her two children at Luis Muñoz Marín airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for an available flight to leave the island.

Flights filled with passengers have been arriving in Miami since Monday. Puerto Ricans are fleeing the hurricane-battered island not knowing when they might be able to return to their homes.

Those who manage to get on a plane are among the fortunate. On Tuesday, the MIA flight information display boards showed at least four canceled flights. Only one, in which Santiago traveled, landed on Tuesday afternoon.

Family members watched with tears in their eyes and hands clenched to their chest as their loved ones descended the escalators and crossed into the baggage claim area. Many rushed to embrace their children, grandchildren, uncles, brothers and sisters, including elderly people in wheelchairs.

Moreno tried to speak as she embraced her granddaughters, 3-year-old Wilyanielis and 6-month-old Ainhoa. But the words were choked with emotion.

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Mara Moreno greets her grandchildren Wilyanielis, 3, and 6-month-old Ainhoa at Miami International Airport. Roberto Koltun

“Being at the [San Juan] airport was like being held captive,” Aida Fernández said as she waited for her bags. “It was chaos, like a nightmare being there,” added her husband Reynaldo Fernández.

The Fernándezes live in Miami and were in Puerto Rico on vacation. Hurricane Maria intensified so rapidly they did not have time to leave before the storm landed as a Category 4. Before lashing Puerto Rico, Maria wreaked havoc on islands in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, mainly Dominica and the Virgin Islands.

In Puerto Rico, the hurricane left at least 16 dead and the entire island without power, making communication virtually impossible, and causing billions of dollars in losses.

Outside the island, Puerto Ricans have been desperate to hear from their loved ones. Some of the travelers who arrived in Miami on Tuesday said they had been unable to notify their friends and family that they were able to board the plane because they had no telephone service. Even those whose cell phones did work said they had run out of batteries at the San Juan airport, which is operating without electricity.

“Boarding tickets are being filled by hand,” said Aida Fernández. “There is no computer, there is nothing. You can wait in line for hours and if the plane fills up, you are left out and have to wait all over again.”

Adriana Santiago arrived with her three children while her husband stayed on the island. She said that she decided to leave with the children because of security concerns.

“The people are desperate and are holding people at gunpoint even for a little fuel,” said Santiago, who lives in San Juan. “Thanks to a neighbor who has a generator, we could watch the TV news for a little while and they were reporting that people were arriving at the hospital with gunshot wounds, from fights or assaults.”

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Puerto Rico resident Claudia Gonzalez breaks down upon arrival at Miami International Airport after being asked about the devastation in Puerto Rico. Roberto Koltun

Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned this week that the island is on the verge of a “humanitarian crisis” and called on the federal government for more resources to deal with the devastation.

“Twelve hours to buy gas, there are no batteries, there is nothing,” said Lorraine Bidot of San Juan, who arrived with her children to stay with a friend in Miami.

Her husband, who is in the military, stayed on the island doing rescue work.

“It’s sad to leave the others there,” Bidot said. “We came planning to stay for a month, but don’t have a return ticket.”

This report was supplemented with information from wire services.

Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar

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