They came from as far as Rome and as near as Rittenhouse Square for Wednesday morning’s Philadelphia-San Juan flight, a desperate race to learn what happened to their homes, their families, and their island.
Puerto Rico-bound passengers at Philadelphia International Airport carried supplies — medicine, food, flashlights, batteries — onto only the second commercial flight to leave from here for Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria’s devastation became apparent last week.
Maritza Cordero Figueroa and her husband, Jorge Rodriguez, flew from their Little Rock home via Dallas in order to board American Airlines Flight 2028 out of Philadelphia, the only flight available to them after multiple cancellations.
“I dumped out my suitcase and just packed in what my family would need,” said Cordero Figueroa, 25, whose relatives live in Orocovis, in the hard-hit central mountain range. She and her husband had been booked on a flight Sunday, but moved up their trip to see family.
They held their boarding passes in the air, displaying them like winning lottery tickets.
The flight would be arriving at an island in turmoil. Power remains out across most of Puerto Rico. Food and gas are scarce. Puerto Rico officials have reported that the death toll from the hurricane has climbed to 16. Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said that about 10,000 federal employees are in the U.S. territory helping with recovery from the Category 4 storm.
With cellphone coverage spotty, loved ones have struggled to learn how friends and family fared. The island’s public affairs secretary, Ramon Rosario, said it would take months to fully restore power.
American Airlines spokesman Justin Franco said Wednesday’s flight was the second commercial passenger flight since Maria battered the island. The first, on Friday, was more relief-oriented, loaded with bottled water, cots, and generators donated for the Puerto Rican families of American Airlines employees in Philadelphia. This one included 19 tons of supplies.
He said American was not yet able to schedule daily flights because limited resources at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport require a “very manual process” to deal with booking and security. Franco said American capped one-way fares at $99 and $199 for first class.
Ana Lugo, 60, a retired San Juan teacher who lives in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood with her engineer husband, said telephone service in the Puerto Rican capital was limited, but she was able to get through to her relatives, who told her that her San Juan apartment had survived the storm.
Lugo splits her time between Philadelphia and her native Puerto Rico, usually spending winters in Puerto Rico, she said before her fight boarded. She was going early to look after her 90-year-old mother.
She bought a one-way ticket because she said she didn’t know when she would return.
In addition to caring for her mother, she needs to tend to a rental property that she owns outside San Juan. One of its walls was knocked down by the storm. But she had no idea how she would reach the property, because transportation outside the capital is crippled.
“Trains aren’t functioning,” she said. “Uber is not functioning, because there’s no gasoline.”
Maribel Marcano, 54, said she brought medicine for her mother-in-law, who suffers from diabetes, because it will be hard to find the medication in Puerto Rico. She had been visiting her daughter in Philadelphia, but she, her husband, and her mother-in-law grabbed the first flight available to return to their home in Hatillo, 50 miles west of San Juan. She’d packed food, medicine, and a small generator.
She also brought cash. Although the crime rate is high in Puerto Rico, many stores can’t use their credit card machines and have reverted to selling only in cash, she said.
“There’s a lot of robbery there,” she said, “but I need cash because the banks are closed.”
Alberto Rodriguez, 42, from Naranjito, about 15 miles from San Juan, was touring Europe with his mother when the hurricane hit. His mother has been repeatedly crying, pleading for him to get back to Puerto Rico.
He said he leaned through “the magic of WiFi” that his mother’s house had survived Maria. But his own house was made of wood and he was worried.
The news of Maria’s devastation hit him hard.
“It was difficult when we learned,” Rodriguez said.
— Lauren Dawn Johnson (@LaurenDawnFox29) September 27, 2017