‘How Will People Survive?’: Nuyoricans Wait Anxiously for News as Irma Strikes Island

Two-thirds of Puerto Rico is without power, and restoring it could take months


Luis Garden Acosta grew antsy that he had not heard from his cousins who live in San Juan.

Acosta, who runs the Williamsburg-based community organization El Puente, has family across Puerto Rico, which sat squarely in the path of Hurricane Irma as it swept through the Caribbean yesterday. Irma, which grew to a Category 5 storm over the Atlantic Ocean, with winds up to 185 miles per hour, battered Antigua and Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands before clipping Puerto Rico’s northern shore last night.

The eye of the storm passed just north of Puerto Rico and headed for the Dominican Republic and Haiti today, with Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas in the line of fire tomorrow. Irma is expected to reach Cuba by Saturday, then make landfall near Miami on Sunday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

About two-thirds of the island is now without power. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the commonwealth on Tuesday, and evacuations have been underway for several days in lowland areas in the northeastern part of the island.

Acosta said that some of his friends in San Juan and Carolina, a coastal municipality east of the capital, had already fled to areas of higher elevation to the south, but his cousins who live in a residential high-rise were staying put. He finally heard from them late Wednesday afternoon.

“I got a text from my cousin — they’re holed up on the fourteenth floor, but they have electricity,” he said. “It’s risky at this point, given the surge of water coming in from the ocean.”

At least Acosta reached his relatives. Some New Yorkers were still waiting to hear periodic updates from siblings, grandparents, and cousins as electricity dimmed across the island.

Greenpoint resident Johnny Cruz, 69, had not heard from his sister since Tuesday. He was constantly checking Facebook on his phone for updates from his relatives at the Johnny Albino Music Center on Moore Street in Williamsburg.

“I’ve been trying to call and it goes straight through voicemail and I’ve been calling several times,” he saidon Wednesday morning.

Cruz’s sister lives in a concrete house about a block and a half away from the water in Catano, west of San Juan and home to the Bacardi Distillery. He thinks the house is OK so far, but he was understandably worried. “The last hurricane they had did damage,” he said. “If you didn’t have a concrete roof the wind would go ahead and blow it away, fuhgeddaboudit!”

Johnny Albino owner Manuel Rivera, 47, said he was worried about his 89-year-old grandmother in Aguadilla. “She’s kind of tough, one of those old-time abuelas,” he said. “You won’t get her out of the house for the storm, she won’t abandon it.”

Those who have heard from family members are often just as fretful and distracted.

Maribel Carrero, 54, a cashier at St. Jude Pharmacy in Bushwick, has spoken with her sister and her niece in Aguada Tuesday and Wednesday morning and planned to call them again after her shift. “They’re putting up plywood on the windows, they shut off the lights, and they have candles,” she said. “So far there’s no damage.”

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has been receiving storm updates from her mother and tweeting them throughout the day:

The storm was doubly challenging for political candidates who are receiving updates from family members in the Caribbean while campaigning for the the city’s primary on Tuesday. Diana Ayala, a Mark-Viverito aide who is running to succeed her term-limited boss, kept tabs on her brother and grandmother while greeting voters in East Harlem. Her family lives in Patillas on the southeastern part of Puerto Rico and had lost power and water on Wednesday.

“I’m a bag of nerves right now. I’m trying to stay focused,” Ayala said. “As long as we have contact I’m comfortable, but if we lose contact I’m going to freak out a little bit.”

The storm’s aftermath could be just as worrisome. Flooding could overtake many coastal areas. If ports remain closed, access to food and water could become scarce for several days.

“How will people survive a longer period than just a few days? How are you going to get food in there if the ports are going to be closed?” Acosta said. “Most of what Puerto Rico needs to survive is imported, and a lot of food and necessities are already off the shelves.”

It could take longer for electricity to return to the island — much longer.

About 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s electric customers were without power on Wednesday afternoon, and that number climbed to 70 percent, or 964,643 people, by Wednesday evening. Many of the island’s power plants are in flood zones, making them vulnerable to damage. Utility officials warned that the commonwealth may not have its power restored for four to six months, according to a Miami Herald report.

“We may not have electricity in Puerto Rico for a week, two weeks, or more,” said Acosta. “Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that, but more than likely it will.”

The commonwealth will likely need billions of dollars in relief aid from the federal government, mere days after Congress authorized $8 billion in emergency funds to Texas for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. That storm’s price tag could eclipse $70 billion.

Unlike Texas, Puerto Rico is weathering a fiscal crisis. The commonwealth owes $123 billion in debt and pension obligations, which forced it to file for Title III bankruptcy in May to restructure its debts. Irma’s likely damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and tourism on top of the struggling economy is a perfect storm no one wants to think about.

“This is as bad as it’s going to get,” said David Ortiz, who runs El Puente’s satellite office in San Juan. “This should draw the attention of all our legislators, no matter who they are or what party, to pay close attention to what’s happening on the island. It’s too bad that it takes a Category 5 hurricane and a major economic crisis to do that.”

Some New York leaders were already beginning to coordinate relief efforts as the storm bore down on the Caribbean. Manhattan representative Adriano Espaillat and Brooklyn representative Nydia Velázquez in Brooklyn were working on drafting aid packages for Puerto Rico and other islands affected by Hurricane Irma, aides to both lawmakers said Wednesday.

Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to deploy the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard as well as additional personnel and equipment to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Florida as necessary. “New York is no stranger to the challenges of Mother Nature’s fury and we stand ready to help communities grappling with the consequences of extreme weather,” he said in a statement.

Political consultant Luis Miranda said he and his son, Lin-Manuel Miranda, received six requests Wednesday afternoon to participate in relief efforts for Puerto Rico and anticipates more in the coming days. Miranda’s extended family lives in the hills away from the coast but they have still been affected by the storm.

“My brother called me and said they moved all the animals that lived outside the house — two goats, two dogs, and four cats, and other animals — inside the house with them. I told them it’s like Noah’s ark, they have two of each,” Miranda said. “Puerto Ricans are resilient people and they will get back on their feet.”