A Week After Hurricane Maria Ravaged Puerto Rico, DC Residents Still Struggle to Reach Relatives

Hurricane Maria devastated cities throughout Puerto Rico, leaving residents in the dark with power problems across the country and half of the island without drinking water.

D.C. Puerto Ricans have felt the frustration of communicating with limited connectivity and worry about what will happen to their family and friends on the island. Two of them have shared their stories.

Leilani Martinez, 43, Rockville, Maryland

Since the storm hit, Leilani Martinez wakes up at 2 and 3 a.m. and thinks about her mother, brother and father who are in Puerto Rico. She gets teary-eyed talking about her family, especially since she has only been able to speak to her mother once for five minutes, talk to her brother twice and doesn’t know where her father, who was on a cruise ship when the hurricane hit, is.

Although Martinez wants to help her family get out of the island, the communication between them doesn’t last long enough for her to coordinate details with them. She shares news that she hears and reads about relief efforts and gas station locations on her brother’s Facebook wall.

"There’s this sense of ‘I need to leave now, I need to go to Puerto Rico tomorrow.’ But I also have a 9-year-old that I don’t have anyone to take care of here because my family is all there,” Martinez said.

Martinez’s brother discovered that he can get some cellphone reception from the roof of the family’s home. But Martinez has lost connection with him once he steps from the roof to give his phone to their mother downstairs.

Her aunt has described the devastation as a pesadilla -- "nightmare" in Spanish. Martinez said that her family’s home has damage to one of the walls and some windows.

Martinez has called her family everyday and used WhatsApp and Facebook to try to reach other family members and friends.

“They don’t know everything that we know,” Martinez said. “I’ve become kind of that bridge between them in their bubble and what they’re seeing to what’s happening and what we’re seeing on this other side.”

Juan Carlos Vega, 46, Columbia Heights, D.C.

Juan Carlos Vega’s family in Puerto Rico consider themselves fortunate to have avoided the worst of what Hurricane Maria has wrecked on the island. Although his brother’s home in San Juan, where one of his sisters is staying, wasn’t flooded, Vega’s family told him about the chaotic scenes at gas stations and supermarkets.

While Vega has heard back from his brother and one of his sisters, he hasn’t been able to get through to his other sisters, cousins, and mother, who live in Guaynabo. Vega has only been able to talk to his mother through text and is anxious to hear his mother’s voice.

“I know they’re okay because my siblings tell me that they are okay but it’s been over a week since I spoke with my mother,” Vega said. “I’m concerned and I’m worried. I want to talk to her. And I am one of the lucky ones.”

Although Vega was able to assure his mother’s safety within a day of the hurricane hitting the island, he said that it took some of his neighbors and friends days to find out if their families were okay. Vega created a blog with references and resources to support the efforts in Puerto Rico.

Vega has been frustrated with what he sees as slow relief efforts. He worries about how limited the roads and the availability to access the internet are in rural communities on the island.

“We still don’t really have a clear picture of what has really happened with this hurricane,” Vega said.

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