Imagine if New Yorkers had been told to expect to be without regular electricity or gas for up to a year after Hurricane Sandy. Imagine if residents in Houston after Hurricane Harvey were still having to line up for hours for food rations. Imagine if your elderly mother retired to south Florida and it took a week after Hurricane Irma to get any word from her that she was alive.
Imagine then that you, like me, are Puerto Rican and part of the diaspora of people on the mainland United States who watched the island brought to its knees; I couldn’t sit back and do nothing, especially with lots of relatives living there
For five days after Hurricane Maria, my family on the mainland went without any sign of life from our relatives in the town of Mayaguez, on the west side of the island; my 74-year-old mother, my aunts and my cousins went silent. (We now count ourselves as part of the lucky ones: Some families waited 10 and even 20 days after the storm.) One can understand why now, weeks after my trip, so many in the diaspora question the almost unbelievably slow and underwhelming response to this devastation on American soil.
The wait to hear from relatives was excruciating, made worse by the fact that my mother had moved back there from her long-time home in New Jersey only four years ago. In those immediate hours after the storm, I had hoped that I would hear from her soon, but the news that did trickle in was not good: We heard that all of the rivers overflowed their banks in Mayaguez, and my mother’s neighborhood was especially vulnerable. One night on Zelo — an app that turns your phone into a walkie-talkie — I dared ask about her street, and a woman told me the entire area was flooded and residents were evacuated.
Eventually, we realized that we couldn't sit back and just wait for a phone call, especially because the interior and western part of the island would be slow to receive any kind of aid from the port in San Juan. And so, on Sept. 24 (four days after the storm hit) I boarded one of the first post-Maria commercial airline flights to pick my mother up and bring her back to New Jersey.
As our 737 approached San Juan, for the first time I wasn't greeted by the view of the shiny, bright turquoise ocean and pristine sand; the ocean was a deep, muddy brown and the coastline was battered and drenched. The captain solemnly addressed us, trying to offer all words of encouragement on our individual missions, and one flight attendant choked back tears as she welcomed us to San Juan and blessed each of us.
Then I walked out into an eerily dark airport to try to find my bag and, as I struggled with my heavy suitcase walking to the car rental, my cousin Marjorie and her husband, Scott, found me: There was a 6 p.m. curfew in place, and it was almost 5 p.m. On the way to their apartment, my phone rang — a miracle to Scott and Marjorie, who had gotten no cell service since the storm — and on the other end was my Aunt Ayxia, Marjorie’s mom and the first relative from Mayaguez we’d heard from. She asked me to tell her other daughter in Denver that she was OK, and I asked Ayxia about my mom. She hadn’t seen her yet and was talking on a borrowed phone and had to hang up.
My phone rang a second time 45 minutes later, and it was my mother, calling from another borrowed phone. She sounded shaky but told me that she was OK and that I shouldn’t travel to Puerto Rico to find her. I only had time to tell her that it was too late, and that I would head out west as soon as possible.
It was the last time I heard from her until I got to Mayaguez, days later.
At Marjorie and Scott's apartment building, they explained that they’d had no power since Irma, before Maria, so we'd have to walk up the nine floors, in a dark stairwell, to their place. We talked in the shadow of flashlights that night, snacking on nuts and other small treats we had on hand, as they explained how Maria had battered their apartment for hours. We went to bed just after 10 p.m. but, in spite of my exhaustion, it was hard to sleep amid the deafening buzz of choppers overhead and the diesel generators all around us, cranking away and spewing thick clouds of exhaust into the air.
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Leonor Ayala Polley is the Director of NBC News Partnerships.