“Landed” flashed on the JFK arrivals board next to Flight DL 302 shortly after 6 p.m on Tuesday. The message was easily missed, buried among the long list of flights from Atlanta, and Chicago, and Toronto. But for those looking for it, waiting for it, the update was a sharp breath of relief. They were here. Family, friends, who spent hours, maybe days, camped in the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and finally got out.
Puerto Rico is still in crisis after Hurricane Maria. The storm tore through as an angry Category 4, cleaving roofs off homes, swallowing streets with floodwaters, stealing electricity from the entire island. It beat up the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, too, damaging radar and navigation equipment. Though most of that is now up and running, military and emergency transport have been relying on the runways to deliver critical aid, sidelining commercial flights and their desperate passengers.
But flights are trickling out of San Juan again. In New York, the first plane from Puerto Rico arrived on Monday. Even with a near-endless stretch of cancellations, at least two touched down in JFK on Tuesday: a JetBlue plane, and this Delta flight, DL302 — though it took off late — landed Tuesday night in Terminal 4.
There, those waiting for the passengers from Puerto Rico paced near the edges of the baggage claim, or leaned over the metal barriers that lined the terminal walkway, as if willing a relative to appear. One woman, Aleida, fiddled with her phone, texting. She waited for her sister, who had been supposed to visit for her daughter’s birthday.
The first travelers from Puerto Rico walked out slowly past the baggage claim. Then they came in waves, rushing past the “Welcome to New York” mural so the roar of rolling suitcases filled the terminal walkway. Attendants carefully wheeled out the elderly passengers, whose families rushed to meet them, as if only touching them would prove they were safe. Aleida, and her sister, Yadira Pèrez-Marcano, spotted each other and hugged across the metal pole at the edges of the walkway.
Pèrez-Marcano arrived in New York after waiting seven hours in a completely full airport. “Devastated, no trees, all the electrical cables are all on the floor,” she said. “You see so many homes without ceilings, some people don’t have houses. I have a co-worker who doesn’t have a home because it was flooded. He doesn’t have a house.”
Pèrez-Marcano’s home flooded in Bayamón, on the northern coast. So did her mom’s, who also lost some trees and her front door.
“If you threw a bomb – and everything ‘froom!’” Pèrez-Marcano motioned an explosion. “Without trees, without leaves, without anything.”
She said it was hard to even know what’s going on because communication is nearly impossible. There’s no internet, no cell-phone service. Pèrez-Marcano had a landline, at least. “That’s the only thing that works.” She spent the last few days going place to place to find water. People are waiting on line, five, six hours, just to get gas.
“I’ve been living in Puerto Rico for the past 43 years,” Pèrez-Marcano said, “I went through Hugo, George, Hortense. But this was the worst.”
Joel Rivera Jr. waited with his girlfriend, father, and mother and their teacup-size dog (“the baby”) outside Terminal 4, clumped together with huge suitcases. They had planned this trip four months ago: a vacation. They acknowledged their luck — not just to get one of the few flights out, but to get away.
“Desastre,” the family said, of Puerto Rico, each repeating it like one, long echo.
“No gas. No water. No food. No communication,” Joel Rivera Jr. ticked off. Their apartment, also in Bayamón, fared okay, as did their neighbors’. But they heard what felt like 160 mile-per-hour wind gusts raging outside.
Rivera Sr. said, so far, the government response has been slow. But Puerto Rico, he summed up, will rebuild.
Pèrez-Marcano made the same promise. She is already planning to return Sunday, with batteries and other supplies. “Puerto Rico se levanta,” she said. The phrase, being passed around on social media, and among Puerto Ricans, and brought to New York on one of the first flights in, means Puerto Rico rises.