For Puerto Ricans Off the Island, a Struggle to Make Contact After Maria

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A report by Richard Fausset for the New York Times.

For the more than five million Puerto Ricans living on the United States mainland, it was bad enough to watch news reports on Wednesday of Hurricane Maria ripping through an island where relatives and friends lived. What made it worse was not knowing how their loved ones had fared.

With the entire power grid knocked out and with more than 95 percent of wireless cell sites out of service, communication was all but impossible on Thursday, and an already emotional day became even harder for the Puerto Rican diaspora.

“We’re all anxious, we’re all desperately seeking information and we’re all on call to help Puerto Rico and give it whatever it needs,” said David Galarza Santa, 48, a Brooklyn resident who said he had been unable to reach his family in the municipality of Florida, west of San Juan, since noon on Wednesday.

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a statement that the hurricane’s impact on the island’s communications infrastructure had been “catastrophic,” and that the commission was trying to help.

Some services, like texting and a few internet messaging apps, were reported to be working, but not consistently.

Mr. Galarza said he was optimistic that his family on the island, including his father and two older sisters, were doing well, in part because they had all hunkered down at his father’s sturdy cement house. He also noted that Puerto Ricans were old hands when it came to surviving devastating storms.

Just two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma sideswiped the island and left nearly 70 percent of households without power. Spared the worst of that storm, Puerto Rico soon became an impromptu hub for disaster relief, where residents of devastated islands fled to for shelter and supplies. Now, many of those who had provided help will surely be in need of their own.

Relief efforts were quickly organized despite the communication challenges. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City offered help to Puerto Rico in a news conference Thursday, saying that, “New York City stands with you and we will be there to help.”

“There are 700,000 New Yorkers who are of Puerto Rican descent and feel a direct, powerful tie to their homeland, and they are feeling this crisis,” he said.

Those sentiments were shared by Puerto Ricans in other cities. It was a feeling of “impotence,” said Eliezer Vélez, 44, of Atlanta.

Mr. Vélez, who works for the Latin American Association in Atlanta, said that he was hoping to get in touch with his mother, two brothers and a number of uncles and cousins. He said a sister who lives on the island was able to send him a message through WhatsApp on Thursday morning; she relayed that everyone was O.K.

“We’re praying for them and hoping for the best,” Mr. Vélez said. “It’s really sad that you’re here, but your mind and your heart are on the island. We are here, but we belong there. I cannot describe the frustration that I’m not there.”

Maricarmen Romero-Vazmina, a resident of Sarasota, Fla., said she was “freaking out, because I was able to talk with my mom five minutes yesterday and have not been able to communicate again.”

Ms. Romero-Vazmina grew up in Guaynabo, P.R., and works in Florida as a court interpreter and mediator. “We here are nervous, terrified by the news and the photos, and unable to do much for our families and the thousands that have no roof.”

She said she had been able to communicate only sporadically, through text messages. Her 91-year-old mother might be receiving her messages, she added, but “she does not get how to respond.”

Ms. Romero-Vazmina said there were “thousands of Puerto Ricans on the mainland trying to know something about their loved ones” in the wake of the storm, without success.

“I have been contacted by at least 10 people, hysterical, trying to get info,” she said. “They keep calling and that is worse because they are tying up the few lines available.”

How to Get in Touch With People in Puerto Rico

• Use the Safe and Well page on the American Red Cross’s website, where survivors can register and post messages, and loved ones can search for registrants.

You can also register on the site by texting SAFE to 78876. Those worried about missing friends or relatives with a serious health condition are encouraged to call the Red Cross at 800-733-2767.

• The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration directed those seeking information or assistance to call 202-800-3133 or email maria1@prfaa.pr.gov.

• The Puerto Rico Tourism Company has set up a hotline at 877-976-2400 for people staying at hotels.

• Puerto Rico Maria Updates, a public Facebook group, is collecting information for those affected by the storm.

Facebook has also turned on its Safety Check feature for people in areas affected by Hurricane Maria.

• The radio station WIPR in San Juan is taking emergency calls at 787-777-0940.

• A map and directory of emergency operation centers in Puerto Rico can be found here.

• To talk to a professional about your emotional distress from the storm, call the @disasterdistressline at 800-985-5990.

3 thoughts on “For Puerto Ricans Off the Island, a Struggle to Make Contact After Maria

  1. Im trying to communicate with my sister Ivette Soto nd my niece Dyana Pons. If any body know them in PR and see this post please let me know

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