Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Local Puerto Ricans providing relief to relatives suffering on island

Oxalis Garcia finally heard her father's voice on Sunday, when he managed to get through to the mainland four days after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico.

Augusto Garcia did not sound like the strong man his daughter knew.

Things are really bad over here. Please get me a plane ticket.

"He is very reserved, but for the first time in my life, I could hear the concern and the desperation in his voice," said Garcia, a 37-year-old St. Petersburg attorney. "To see him so vulnerable, it was very emotional for me."

During the storm and its aftermath, panic reverberated throughout the Tampa Bay region. More than 140,000 Puerto Ricans live in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and for days many of them have frantically tried to reach family members across the island.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: What hurricane taught me about the people of Puerto Rico

Now that communication is improving, local residents are finally connecting with loved ones on the U.S. territory and hearing first hand their accounts of riding out the storm and the dire conditions left in its wake. In many cases, mainlanders are trying to reserve plane tickets so relatives can flee an island expected to take months to rebuild.

"They're desperate," Ady Ramos of Tampa told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. "They're just waiting for help but they have seen that nothing is happening right now."

Ramos and her husband Eddie Perez, owner of Los Gorditos restaurant in Tampa, are natives of Puerto Rico and lost touch with their relatives last Wednesday when the worst of the storm blew through. The couple finally connected with most of their family on Monday, but Perez, who has two teen sons on the island, hasn't heard from the older boy, 16-year-old Christian, or his mother. They live in Caguas, in the mountainous central region of the island.

"He's really worried about his kids," said Ramos, 33.

Ramos' grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins live in Guaynabo, a small city south of the capital San Juan. Relatives told her the storm at its peak sounded like a "monster," shearing off roofs and splitting trees outside the two-story home where they took shelter. As they huddled on the first floor, the storm stole the building's roof, flooding her uncle's apartment.

Now the family is rationing food and water, sharing one bottle of water a day among them, to make the provisions last as long as possible.

"Having your family call you and say they're just eating once a day, it's been really painful," Ramos said.

She said she plans to fly her cousins, ages 16 and 26, to Tampa as soon as possible.

Land O'Lakes psychologist Lavinia Rodriguez has family in some of the hardest hit parts of the island.

Her two brothers and 90-year-old mother live in Levittown, a middle-class neighborhood west of San Juan swamped by flooding. The wife and mother-in-law of her younger brother Wilfred were rescued when water overtook their home. Wilfred hunkered down in another house with the family's four cats, and her older brother Jose rode out the storm with their mother.

At first, "everybody was just happy to be alive, telling their stories," said Rodriguez, 64. "Now as time goes on people are getting more depressed and frantic because it's not the end of it."

Wilfred's house has a generator, but there's no air conditioning and gas is running low. So is the once-ample food supply.

For days, Rodriguez has worked to secure plane tickets to Florida for eight of her family members. She finally reserved the last one on Tuesday. Her older brother's flight was supposed to arrive Wednesday but got canceled and rescheduled for Oct. 6. They will all be here by Oct. 14.

Wilfred had to work to convince their mother to leave.

"She wants to die in Puerto Rico," Rodriguez said. "He probably had to promise her that when things are okay he'll take her back."

Rodriguez is worried about the longer term effects of the storm. Her sister- in-law's panic attacks have returned. And Wilfred, retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, has been the de facto leader, "pretty much responsible for everybody," she said.

He will be the last to leave the island, working to secure the family's four homes and herding the family's four cats for the trip.

"He's very strong willed, but that's a lot of stress on the body and psyche of any human being," Rodriguez said.

Garcia, the St. Petersburg attorney, said her parents will try to make at least a temporary living on the mainland. Her mother, a psychologist, is flying into Tampa on Friday.

The building that houses her 58-year-old father's periodontal practice in Aguadilla was badly damaged, so he packed a carry-on bag with four days worth of clothes and headed for the San Juan airport. Winding his way through a gauntlet of mountain roads littered with downed trees and power lines, he arrived to "total chaos" as crowds of sweltering, would-be travelers waited for their chance to flee.

Augusto's first flight was cancelled, so Oxalis secured another reservation for this Sunday. He managed to get a standby seat, though, and flew out Monday.

The last she heard, her father had arrived in Indianapolis, where he is licensed to practice. For now, he's staying with a friend while he looks for a job.

"Basically, he left everything behind," she said, "to improve his situation so he can help the rest of the family."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

   
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