DORADO, Puerto Rico – Juan González was walking fast, trying to get to the top of a hill where he might find a cell phone signal and call his son Juan Carlos in Wisconsin and his daughter Zulma in Florida.
It was four days after Hurricane Maria smashed the island and he wanted to reassure them. He was growing desperate, like tens of thousands of other Puerto Ricans on the island left without communications after Maria knocked out nearly 80 percent of all cell phone towers.
“Of course!” he said when Univision reporters asked if he had relatives abroad that he waned to contact. A knot in his throat briefly kept him from giving a name. But he dried his tears quickly and recorded a video message. He had traveled 50 miles, from the town of Arecibo, because he had heard that the hill in Dorado had a working cell phone signal.
“We're good. Everything is good. The situation is a little difficult because of the weather and the power of the hurricane, but we are surviving. Don't worry,” he said. Hours later, Zulma received the message in Fort Lauderdale through Univision Noticias' PRActivate initiative.
“I was dying,” said Zulma. “You pay a very high price when you live outside the island. I have parents who have been so good to me, and it's something that kills me inside.”
Zulma, like others outside the island, had been deeply worried by the images of areas devastated and long lines for gasoline coming out of Puerto Rico – and their inability to communicate with friends and relatives there.
The uncertainty affected millions. More than 3.4 million Puerto Ricans live outside the island, nearly as many as live on the island. The diaspora has been growing rapidly for the past decade and the exodus hit 89,000 people in 2015 – the last year reported by the Statistical Institute of Puerto Rico. The lack of jobs and crumbling economy have pushed many to move to the United States. Now Maria has become a fatal blow that could significantly increase the exodus.
A one hour drive in search of a cell phone signal
More than 100 others stood with Juan González on that Dorado hill Saturday, trying to get a signal. They had come from towns like Camuy, a one-hour drive, and Lares, one and a half hours away.
“We put in $10 of gasoline into the car and drove here,” said Linette Cordero, who drove from Lares with her husband and small son. “It totally destroyed the home, but we're safe,” she said in her message to her sisters Minerva in Wisconsin and Ada in Connecticut.
Finding gasoline in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico is a real victory, and spending it all on a trip in search of a telephone signal showed her desperation to contact her family.
The emergency lanes of a nearby section of Highway 2, which runs east to west, was lined with parked cars as drivers sought cell phone connections. Some got out of their vehicles and raised their phones in hope of finding a signal – a scene never before seen in Puerto Rico.
Univision Noticias mobilized throughout the island to link up families, and as of Tuesday had helped more then 7,000 to communicate. The job of finding people in Puerto Rico is difficult because Google Maps is mostly unavailable, so Univision has to follow street directions the old way.
Reporters went to the hard-hit town of Guayama in southwastern Puerto Rico, near where Maria made landfall. They found the grandmother of Edwina Torres, who had written from Atlanta, in the Santa Rosa home for the elderly.
“Thank you for worrying about me,” said Doris Torres, covering her face with her hands when she learned that her granddaughter had been so worried about her. “I am fine,” she said, drying her tears.
In Atlanta, Edwina also broke into tears when she learned her grandmother was OK. “Many thanks. I just called my mother, my brother and my sister. We were so worried,” she said.
To the north, in the seaside town of Toa Alta, we arrived at the house of Rosa Romero and Jose Santana. Their niece in New York, Katia Santana, had been concerned that their house had been flooded by the nearby La Plata river.
“Many thanks. That area where they live always floods,” Santana said after learning that Rosa and Jose were safe and cooking soup at home.
When we drove on to Orocovis in the center of Puerto Rico we found the parents of Emily Maldonado, who lives in Florida.
“You gave me my life back,” Maldonado said when told that her father, Eloy Quiles, and his mother, Emilia Martínez, were OK. “Do you think I should bring them to Florida with me?” she asked.
That's a big question for many Puerto Ricans outside the island: to leave their relatives there or move them to the U.S. mainland. In Maldonado's case, her father seemed to be good staying. “We only lost a bit of paint on a wall,” he said as he sipped coffee with the kind of hospitality that Puerto Ricans maintain even in the worst of times.
Death in a the family
The difficulties with communications grow even sharper when someone suffered an accident or died. That was the case of the Santiago family in Lares, which lost a relative on Sunday and has been struggling to spread the news to others on the island and outside.
A niece who went to visit was told by a neighbor that the relative had been rushed to a hospital. Unable to call the hospital, the niece went there but the relative had already died. She traveled one hour to San Juan to notify some relatives, and then drove back to Lares to notify others one by one. One relative went on a Lares radio station to get the word out.
Radio stations have helped greatly by broadcasting reports that some people are well and questions about others unaccounted for. They also broadcast official announcements on recovery efforts.
But some Puerto Ricans in the United States were too desperate to wait for news, and like Nana Collazo bought a plane ticket to the island to check on her family in person.
“I already have the ticket, and the car to drive to them,” she said.
Zuania Capó, Daliana Alvarado and Ana María Abruña also contributed to this article.