News & Politics

Elderly, Disabled Scramble to Get Flights From San Juan to Mainland

At a packed airport, throngs of locals are leaving, uncertain when they’ll return

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Once my family saw the broad devastation left in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, my mom, a retiree in her seventies, expressed her wishes to leave the island for a few weeks at least. She felt she’d be better off leaving home instead of suffering through the lack of power, the long lines for gas and food, and the heat at night.

Thankfully, my neighbor’s cellphone still received a weak signal, so I was able to call friends in Chicago who helped us buy our tickets online. The closest available flight we found was two weeks away, which put us at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan on Friday, along with thousands of other families with similar plans.

Puerto Rico is no stranger to mass migrations of its U.S. citizens to the mainland. Even before Maria, the island was already experiencing its “Second Great Exodus” that followed the economic recession that started in 2006, even surpassing the great Puerto Rican migration in the late 1940s and 1950s. Now, with official estimates predicting it might take six months to get the entire power grid functional and years to bring the island back to where it was before the hurricane, officials are expecting an increase in migration toward the United States and other countries, at least temporarily.

The main point of entry and exit from the island, the airport suffered significant damage, including to its vital radar installation for air traffic control. For days, those of us in Puerto Rico followed stories on social media and on local radio depicting the desperation of many passengers who felt stranded, thanks to a lack of available tickets for the few remaining flights that hadn’t been canceled. Hundreds of people slept on the terminal floor, some for days.

“People were waiting for humanitarian flights or waiting for their turn on the standby list since their flights were canceled,” says an airport employee who wished to remain anonymous. Even though officials were urging passengers not to go to the airport unless their flight was confirmed, because of the lack of cellphone signals and Internet access, most people had no way to find out whether their flight was canceled until they got to the airport. “They came and went regularly to try to get a seat on any flight,” says the airport employee.

The airport finally returned to full operations last week: It now has power and air conditioning, TSA staffers have returned to work, and there are fewer canceled flights with each day. Planes are now departing daily until late at night instead of stopping at 4 p.m., as they did in the first week under a government curfew.

At the airport, the feeling was of a busy high-season day, though Puerto Rico would normally be in the low season now. There were more elderly passengers than usual: One airport employee told me there weren’t enough wheelchairs for the large number of disabled and senior travelers currently leaving the island.

But it’s not just seniors who are leaving: People who need intensive medical care — in particular, dialysis patients — are also seeking help on the mainland. Many of these patients are going without their treatments, since many Puerto Rican clinics and hospitals still lack power, diesel, and water. Last but not least, there was also an unusually high number of pets, especially dogs, traveling with their owners. On my flight alone I counted seven animals.

The social environment, meanwhile, was different from what I had ever experienced at an airport. A sense of camaraderie, of surviving a life-changing experience, ruled the terminal. Strangers talked to one another, relating their experiences during the hurricane and its aftermath or sharing messages of hope and encouragement.

“People were really patient while waiting in line; everyone cooperated,” said Alejandro Salas from Carolina as he waited for his flight to Philadelphia. Unlike most people at the airport, he was leaving on a vacation trip to Europe booked months ago. Salas added that Puerto Ricans have already become accustomed to long queues for getting gas, withdrawing money at ATMs, and buying food: “It’s what we’ve learned. It’s been two weeks already, so we’ve gained some patience with this situation we are living.”

Not all Puerto Ricans feel like they must leave to survive the current physical and economic conditions in Puerto Rico. “I’m leaving because my son [in Tennessee] booked my flight. I didn’t know about it until after he booked it and told me, ‘You’re flying on the sixth,’” said Monserrate Mendez from San Juan, who was traveling to Tennessee to stay temporarily with her son.

Even though Mendez’s home has no power and her street was flooded until three days ago, she doesn’t feel the urge to leave the island for good. “I feel a sense of belonging here,” she said. “I can help my family, community, and other people from here.”

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