A report by Luis Ferré-Sarduní for the New York Times.
Puerto Ricans relieved at being spared the worst destruction donated water, clothing, first aid and other supplies, and dozens of recreational boaters sailed to nearby islands to deliver the assistance and evacuate now-homeless islanders on the return trip.
A 54-foot dive boat named the Tobias cast off on Sunday morning from the marina here, the largest in the Caribbean, and made its way eastward under a searing sun to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the fourth vessel of the day to make the trip. It would return later crowded to capacity with 46 St. Thomas residents escaping the near-total devastation of the island.
“We were very blessed here, and we have to do everything we can to help,” said Cristina Morales, the owner of the Tobias.
Government-led missions have also been evacuating people from the islands to Puerto Rico. Some 1,200 mostly American citizens, have been carried from Saint Martin and Saint Thomas in six C130 aircraft, and more than 50 patients have been airlifted to Puerto Rican hospitals, officials said.
The civilian sealift, by contrast, has been largely a spontaneous, volunteer affair. And it has grown out of the longtime affinities and links among recreational boaters in Puerto Rico and the islands to the east.
Puerto Ricans often cruise to the American or British Virgin Islands, known interchangeably here as “las islas,” to enjoy their crystalline beaches or for fishing competitions. One week-long event held in July in the British islands attracts such a large contingent of visiting boats that locals joke about hosting the Puerto Rican Navy.
“We’ve enjoyed the beauty and the fun of those islands,” said Martita Rivera, who has vacationed in the islands for 25 years. “We only saw the need to say, ‘We’re here for you.’”
Ms. Rivera and her husband, Roger Casellas, run one of the pop-up donation centers from Mr. Casella’s boat dealership in Hato Rey. They have received everything from diapers and shirts to nails and hammers.
Responding to a call to arms on social media, she said, hundreds of volunteers have helped to pack four shipping containers full of supplies that will be delvered to the islands this week.
The storm, which struck the islands first, swiftly knocked out power and phone service, leaving their residents disconnected from the outside world. As displaced islanders began to trickle in to Puerto Rico in the storm’s wake, so did their stories of the wreckage they had fled.
“I don’t think people knew how bad it was going to be until it was too late,” said Julie Reynolds, who was rescued on Friday from Tortola, the largest island of the British Virgin Islands.
“It looked like a forest fire hit it,” Ms. Reynolds, 38, said of Tortola. “There were no leaves on the trees. It used to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Her husband, Yann Leboyer, who runs a boat-charter company, tried to secure his 74 vessels with anchors and fenders, to no avail. He said his motorboats were half-sunk and his sailboats piled over his tipped-over catamarans. Only two of the boats were left relatively unscathed.
“Nine years of work gone in 10 hours,” Mr. Leboyer said, holding back tears. “I’m in shock. I’m not fully processing everything.”
Tortola became inhospitable after the storm, he said, without electrical power or communications. After desperate residents ransacked grocery stores, Mr. Leboyer said, the British military started patrolling in armored vehicles, and a curfew was imposed.
Luis Duprey, a business associate of Mr. Leboyer in Puerto Rico, cruised to his friend’s rescue on Friday on a borrowed 33-foot motorboat called the All In. Mr. Duprey, 40, said he cried when he saw what was left of the island: “It looks like a bomb went off,”
Along with Mr. Leboyer’s family, Mr. Duprey carried nine other stranded Tortolans to safety in Puerto Rico on the All In. Some who are not American citizens, including Mr. Leboyer, who is French, are being allowed to stay in the American territory for 30 days by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for humanitarian reasons.