When Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico earlier this month, Jacquie Gormley’s 25-year-old son was still on an extended visit with his grandmother.
Despite dire warnings about massive destruction, Irma caused less damage than anticipated to his 71-year-old grandmother’s home in Ceiba. Other than a few downed trees in the backyard of her home on the island’s northeast coast, they were mostly spared. He cleaned up the mess.
So when, two weeks later, Hurricane Maria bore down, they took another gamble.
His grandmother Gladys Perez had already decided to stay with her beloved dogs.
The two have always been close. Like his mom, who was born and raised in New York City, Martin Martinez loved spending summers in Puerto Rico.
If abuela wasn’t leaving, neither was he.
In a phone call with his mother, who lives near Glassboro, he conceded that he was a little worried.
As much as Gormley wanted to order her son home, she had no choice but to try to help him prepare as best she could from afar.
“Stay away from the windows,” she advised. “If it gets really bad, go into a closet or a bathroom.”
“Just hold on to each other and don’t let her go. Don’t separate.…”
She didn’t get to finish. The line went dead.
Within hours the Category 4 hurricane hit, leaving the island in apocalyptic conditions. Ten people died. The best off have lost power and communications.
The photos and stories that started coming out of the decimated island horrified Gormley, as she frantically tried to get in touch with her son and his grandmother. Children sitting on the rubble that used to be their home, residents desperate for food and water and gas.
Had her son’s grandmother’s house been spared again, she wondered. If it hadn’t, were they able to get to shelter? Did they have food, water? Did Marty, as she called her only son, have enough medicine for his asthma, which requires him to use an inhaler through the day?
“They say usually a mother knows, and I just don’t know, and that’s my biggest fear right now,” she said, choking up. “I’m his mom, I should be able to protect him. I should be able to feel if he needs help.”
What she feels now is terror.
She and family members call every number they can think of, more times than she can remember, all hours of the night. The shelters, the police departments, the hospitals. Sometimes she gets a busy signal; other times she gets nothing. She’s filled out every online form she can find, searching for information.
A plea to the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration website was returned five days later with a blanket response, advising her to go on the site and check for his name. It’s not there. She tunes in to Spanish-language TV and radio stations in hope of hearing his name, or his voice. She scours social media sites to join thousands of others searching for loved ones.
The pleas are heartbreaking.
I haven’t heard from my mother, my father…
Please, if anyone can help my uncle…
I need to get food to my sister…
After days in the dark, Gormley finally got through to relatives in Dorado and were able to pick up a cellphone signal by standing in the middle of a road. Could they help? Because gas is sparse, they can’t make the 2 1/2-hour trip. And even if they could, they weren’t sure if they could get through with many of the roads washed out.
So she waits; there’s nothing else she can do. She doesn’t sleep. She doesn’t eat. As much as her job as an account manager for an organic food company is a welcome distraction, she can’t keep from crying.
The other day her mother called her to suggest she call a cousin who works for the mayor of Fajardo. She understood that her mother, like herself, was grasping at anything or anyone who might be able to help.
I didn’t tell her until later that I could relate. I’d gotten a similar phone call from my mother this past weekend. No one in the family had heard from her brother, my uncle John Sanchez, since the hurricane.
Maybe since I was a reporter, my mother pleaded, I had another way of getting information? Maybe I could find someone in Manati to tell her if her brother was OK?
As much as I wished I could say yes, I had to tell her I knew no more than anyone else desperately trying to account for their families more than a week after the hurricane hit, left to search photos and videos of residents, to see if I could recognize an uncle I haven’t seen in years.
So far, it’s the same answer.
The same answer Gormley gives friends and relatives checking in to see if now, more than a week later, she’s heard from her son.