NEW YORK — From Florida to Massachusetts, Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland are scrambling to help relatives on the hurricane-battered island leave at the earliest opportunity.
With power out across nearly the entire island, families were anxious to get out elderly and other vulnerable relatives, in particular, amid concerns about access to food and fresh water.
Leaving, though, is a challenge. Just a few commercial flights are departing each day from the capital city of San Juan.
Yadira Perez Marcano was one of the lucky few to snare a seat on the solitary Delta flight to New York City’s Kennedy Airport on Tuesday.
Passengers cheered when the plane landed at around 6:20 p.m., but Perez Marcano, whose apartment building in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, shook violently through the storm, said she had “mixed feelings” about leaving the destruction behind for the comfort of a sister’s home outside New York City.
“Oh my God. I left back my family, friends and co-workers. And I’m here. They don’t have water. They don’t have lights. They don’t have so many things they need, and that makes me really sad,” she said, starting to cry.
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can come and go as they please between the island and the U.S. mainland. Over the last decade some 450,000 islanders have moved to the mainland in search of better jobs.
The scale of the devastation from Hurricane Maria, which tore across the island as a Category 4 storm last week, has left many more wondering whether it may be their time to leave. But the extent of any new, hurricane-driven influx will not be known for several weeks once commercial flights resume regular schedules.
Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he expects thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans to land in the city in the months ahead.
Cori Rojas, 33, an English teacher from Luquillo, Puerto Rico, arrived in New York with her young children, ages 3 and 4, on the same Delta flight that carried Perez Marcano.
She too was relieved to get out — her family had no fuel, no power and was having trouble buying food. But her husband stayed behind and she said she kept thinking about the well-being of her young students.
"I'm just worried more about Puerto Rico," she said.
A lack of reliable communication on the island made it only more stressful as people had little information on how relatives were faring.
Maciel Garcia-Tilen, 40, of Miami, said her elderly parents in Mayaguez, on the island's west coast, told her over a borrowed cellphone that they had water and food for only another week. Garcia-Tilen said she wants to fly to San Juan as soon as possible to take supplies to the island and then fly her parents back to Florida.
Miguel Besosa, a retired truck driver in Hartford, Connecticut, has not been able to speak with his wife who was visiting her cancer-stricken sister in Ponce, on the island's south coast, when the hurricane hit. He learned that she survived from a relative who found a working payphone, but he worries it will take weeks for her to find an available flight.
"At least they are alive," said Besosa, age 70. "They are suffering a lot."
Air travelers who made it through to the U.S. described a bad scene, too, at the airport in San Juan.
Jenny Delpin, 21, and Joseph Roman, 23, who had traveled to Puerto Rico to celebrate their engagement, said after landing Monday in New York that the conditions there mirrored the island in general. Little food or water. No power. Little way to communicate.
"You have babies sleeping in the airport for four or five days. It's 105 degrees," Roman said. "Just to get out of there is a nightmare."
As for Perez Marcano , who had planned her trip to New York some time ago to visit a niece, said she already is hoping to head back as soon as Sunday — with a load of batteries and other emergency supplies.