Standing outside his church in Palmetto Bay on Sunday, Jesus Figueroa listened intently to information coming across his iPhone from Puerto Rico on Zello. The walkie-talkie app transmits messages on group channels when cell phone service is a challenge – and in Puerto Rico right now it’s an epic ordeal.
“The problem is that most of the communications towers are in place but they’re not connected to the grid,” said Figueroa, who works for the federal government in Miami after leaving Puerto Rico 15 years ago.
“They’re operating on generators, and since they had a lot of landslides in the hurricane, it’s hard to get into the tower stations to put the fuel in them.”
It’s been a week since Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean island, which is a U.S. territory. At least 10 people died in the storm; it knocked out power, water and communications island-wide. Figueroa was hoping to hear any word about his relatives in the central Puerto Rican town of Naranjito – including his parents.
“It’s very frustrating because you don’t know if your family is good, if they’ve been hurt or not, or if they need something,” Figueroa said. “You’re not able to communicate with them.”
Figueroa’s native island has suffered hurricanes before. But he says this is the first time he’s ever known it to be so utterly cut off from the world.
Hurricane Maria is one of the worst natural disasters to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century. And it may take years to recover from it. Puerto Ricans on the island are U.S. citizens – but right now they’re feeling less protected by U.S. infrastructure and more like neighboring Haiti did last year after being leveled by Hurricane Matthew.
What little information the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida have been able to glean so far has been alarming, says Ana Maria Moran, a retiree in West Palm Beach who finally heard from relatives in her flooded coastal hometown of Manatí over the weekend.
“For maybe 20, 30 seconds they were able to get some signal and call us,” Moran said. “Everybody is in the same situation. Enough food and water left for only a few days; no fuel, no communications with authorities. It was a tearful call too because the hospital there is collapsing.”
Moran is a former international aid worker, and her son’s a pilot. Now that she knows the situation, they’re set to make a relief flight to Manatí this week to deliver supplies. They also hope to bring locals with urgent needs back to Florida.
“The plane will fit 10 people – moms with their babies and the elderly,” she said. “Some of them are isolated; you can’t get to them at this point.”
Very few here have been as fortunate as Moran to speak with loved ones on the island. Which is why Puerto Rico hurricane networks are popping up on social media. They’re like bulletin boards where Puerto Ricans here can get information about people there – and vice versa.
One of those bulletin boards was set up by a South Florida networking group called Boricuas Realengos, or Far-Flung Puerto Ricans.
“It’s a helpful form of third-person communication,” said Angie Flores of Miramar, who heads Boricuas Realengos.
“You find those that have communication with somebody somewhere on the island, then you say, ‘Oh can you please check for this person or this person who is there and call me back? Can you check my cousins, because I cannot communicate with them. Then they call you. Even though they don’t know you, they pass the information.”
Flores has yet to make contact with relatives in her hometown of Juncos, southeast of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan. She learned from Facebook that a flooded river has submerged much of Juncos.
But the communications breakdown is even scarier for people on the island. WLRN made contact with San Juan attorney Francisco González, who had just made it to the rural town of Caguas to check on friends. He called the devastation and isolation he saw “extraordinary.”
“Almost 70 percent of the island’s electrical poles are down,” González said. “Most of the roads could not be used because we have lost, I would say, 80, 85 percent of all the trees around the roads.”
But González did have one piece of personal good news. “We have been able to communicate with my daughter who lives in Tampa.”
Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was suffering one of the worst economic crises in its history – as well as a massive exodus to the U.S. mainland. When I spoke with González last summer he was optimistic about Puerto Rico’s future because voters there had just called for U.S. statehood.
Now he said he fears the hurricane will only drive more Puerto Ricans away.