null: nullpx
Logo image
United States

"I want to know if my old folks are okay": communication desperation in Puerto Rico after Maria

The wrath of Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico without telephone and internet service. Millions of people, both on the island and in the United States, are trying to find out about loved ones. In some hard-hit areas like Yabucoa and Humacao police and emergency services have had trouble communicating with each other.
22 Sep 2017 – 12:06 PM EDT
Una familia contempla su casa destrozada en Guayama, Puerto Rico. Crédito: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The last thing that Huáscar Robles knows about his mother and sister in Puerto Rico was that they were together in the bathroom of their house while Hurricane Maria was passing overhead.

It was around 7:00 am on Wednesday and, from that moment, the journalist and photographer has not heard from them.

"They were in the bathroom and we got disconnected. I never thought (the hurricane) was going to be so horrible. I thought it would be like most years. But when I started to see the photos, I switched and began to send messages to everyone," Robles told Univision News, who has lived in New York since 2011.

His mother and sister - and their two little nieces - live in the La Cima section in the Bairoa neighborhood in the city of Caguas. He believes they are fine. But he won't breathe easy until he speaks to them or at least receives a text message.

Like Robles, millions of Puerto Ricans on and off the island are anxious to communicate, or find out, how their families are coping. Most figured that after the storm passed they would be able to get in touch after a few hours. But cell phones report "no service" and despair is growing 36 hours after Maria departed.

"Hello, you can pass by the Mendez suburb, L Street G14 !!! I want to see if my old folks are okay!! Please!" one user, Deborah Street, asked us after Univision News reported on a visit to the emergency management offices in the town of Yabucoa, where the eye of Maria made landfall in south east Puerto Rico at dawn on Wednesday.

In the capital San Juan, cell phone signal was only being received in a few locations, causing people to congregate in those areas. On Friday San Juan international airport reopened and American Airlines restarted its scheduled flights.

Incomunicado: police and emergency teams

Not even the police or officials of the emergency management agency were able to communicate adequately with each other in Yabucoa and nearby Humacao. Two reporters from Univision News went through the hurricane with them, and the first night after. We listen to their desperation as they tried to reach those affected.

"We are communicating when we meet on the streets," a police officer in Humacao responded when asked how they were talking to officials in other areas. "The (telephone) antenna was split in half," he explained.

At the emergency headquarters, one official began to cry when she told her companions that she had finally gotten to her house to see the children she left there.

Radio was the only way some people could get some relief by letting their families know they were okay.

"Here in Las Piedras; Efrain López and Gabriel Torres we are well," a broadcaster at Univision's Walo radio read out on the air.

Many could not communicate because roads in many villages, especially rural areas, were blocked with debris or flooded. Any, But by late Thursday it was still unclear when phone communications would be restored on the island.

Additional reporting by Carmen Graciela Díaz in New York.

Cargando galería