Fleeing Maria

Fleeing seems like too strong of a word. I should reserve it for the people actually fleeing Serbia or other war torn countries with lives at stake. We got outta Dodge? Sounds like a weekend getaway.

Anyway, it was Friday – two days after Maria hit – when Trevor declared we needed to leave. Ever the optimist I was sure power would be restored in a couple days and school resume in a week. But when we heard on Saturday it would be one more week without power or water, I was convinced we need to scram too.

So, how does one book airline tickets without a phone or internet? You drive to the airport and talk to an agent in person. Problem: we live 40 minutes from the Aguadilla airport and 2.5 hours from San Juan’s. (These are on normal days). We had no idea about the road conditions, if the airports were functional, if there were any flights, and how many other people had the same plan. Remember – there were exceptionally long waits at each gas station and some gas stations were running out of fuel altogether. We had 3/4 tank in our one car. If we wasted gas going to an airport (or worse getting almost there but having to turn around due to road blockage) we would’ve wasted gas for nothing. Or been stranded at an airport. We decided to try Aguadilla on Monday morning. Come what may.

While checking in on nearby friends, we noticed that their neighbor had a satellite phone! We wandered back over there twice on Saturday, managing to see him the second visit. He allowed us to make a 30 second call (at $25 a minute this was very generous). I got my moms voicemail and left the most frantic message instructing here to contact our friend Sheila and work together to buy us airplane tickets. I wasn’t done talking when her voicemail cut me off and the guy wanted his phone back. Ugh! Crap! No! I wasn’t done. I didn’t get a chance to say make the tickets for Tuesday or Wednesday, or that I’d call her back as soon as I could… at least I think I blurted out that we were ok. Immediately I felt like I make matters worse with the frantic tone of my voice. I envisioned her imagining riots and chaos that we were paranoid about. Really we were just stinky and bored and knew we needed to leave so Trevor could work online again. I fretted over how poorly it went. ***later on I learned that Mom and Sheila sprung into action rather than freak out. Great job ladies!***

(I was sick of seeing ‘no service’ on my phone)

I had so much pent up energy flowing in me. With such a overriding desire to get away and not being able to talk with my family, I wanted to be strong and calm but slipping into a depressed funk seemed oddly alluring. My neighbors helped ground me, my kids helped make me laugh. Thankfully they rolled with everything, only occasionally asking for TV or YouTube.

We literally packed our bags, and they sat waiting for whenever.

Hero Gilberto saved the day. He announced to the neighbors on our street that he finally got his landline working and managed to make some long distance calls. We could use his phones to call whomever we wished. Giddy, several other neighbors and I tried calls only to hear busy signals (how do you work landline again?). Oh please oh please God have this work! And yes! It did! After hours of hand-wringing that afternoon, on Saturday night I spoke with my Mom! She was so happy to hear my voice. She was able to tell me that Silvina’s friend contacted her Friday to relay the message that our family was ok. Hurray for phone tree!

Gilberto let us use the phone as much as we liked. Gracias a Dios! Sheila and Mom scrambled to find a flight with four people to travel together. Wednesday at 2pm Delta out of San Juan. We did it! (Merry Christmas and Happy Birthdays to us) Now…we just had to get ourselves there traveling 3/4 across the hurricane ravished country on roads with questionable traversability (is that a word?)

Over the next few days we learned that only 10 commercial flights were leaving San Juan each day. The radar at the airport was squashed so they were using temporary tracking equipment, and keeping traffic flow open for military and aid aircraft. And many of those flights were still being canceled, stranding people at the airports. Rumors swirled about San Juan airport having no water or restaurants open, the news described the scene there as ‘chaotic’. Great! As we tuned into the Weather Channel each night, the news seemed to lesson about Puerto Rico so we didn’t learn much. CNN kept talking about national anthems and football players, so the 15 minutes we could watch the news didn’t give us any useful information. Back to hearsay and the one functioning Puerto Rican radio station for news.

The main question: do we take the northern route or the southern route to San Juan? Northern route = many more stop lights and traffic but more opportunities to get gas in case we ran out due to traffic jams. But that’s where those dams were breaking and flooding was prevalent. Someone said they were u-turning traffic at some point. Enterprise rental car guy said it would take 8 hours going that route. Say what? Southern route: through the mountain so fewer gas stations. Were there rock slides? There was a flood around Yauco that could take hours to get through due to back up. That route might take 3-5 hours.

We called Tuesday midday to confirm that we still had a flight. Mom gave us big news: flight was now at 11am, not 2pm! OHMYGOSH WE GOTTA LEAVE NOW! There was a curfew for the whole island 7pm – 5am. Even if we left at 5am with all these questionable road conditions we didn’t want to risk missing our sacred flight. Our best option was to drive Tuesday afternoon and figure out sleeping accommodations at the airport. We rented a car to avoid paying for long term parking, finished up details and hit the road. As we were running around our babysitter Madison stopped in to check on us. She also told us of drivers getting robbed at gunpoint in San Juan and gas tanks being chainsawed out of parked cars. Don’t tell me this right before we leave!!!

I was so sad to leave my neighbors Sonia and Ron without saying goodbye in person but I left them a note. I told Gilberto to eat our frozen chicken before it rotted and use the generator as needed.

As fate would have it we broke speed records getting to San Juan. The flooding in Yauco was dry and no debris blocked the road. Not wanting to stop along the way (those looters! Actually we didn’t know which rest stops actually had running water or if we’d be stuck in a three hour traffic jam) we put our kids in pull-ups just in case. They weren’t too thrilled about that.

We saw many strange sights along the way. Groups of people were gathered in the most unusual spots holding up their cell phones apparently gathered at a purported hotspot. Other groups were stopped along the side of the highway reaching into random bushes. It took us a while to realize they must’ve found a trickle of waterfall or natural spring and were filling up water jugs. Tank trucks traveling with valuable gasoline were given police escorts (one driving the opposite direction on the shoulder of the highway!).

5:30ish we rolled into the airport. Expecting chaos, we saw a nearly deserted departures area with plenty of security milling about. Delta ticket counter would reopen at 6am. It looked like many other families had the same curfew issue because they were claiming spots on the floor to hunker down for the night.

The airport hotel was booked and didn’t have A/C anyway. We had a picnic dinner and ‘slept’ in the car in the parking structure.

Enterprise rental car office looked decimated and wasn’t open in the morning so we were forced to park the car with the keys inside in the public area of the ramp. We took video and photos documenting our drop off. What else could we do?

Lines were long and slightly confusing but they actually moved relatively fast. I felt a little guilty because people who had flights booked before the hurricane hit had their flights completely canceled. The new flights were sold to people like us who bought tickets after the hurricane. What a mess.

Only one security checkpoint was open then we took a hike to our terminal. Can you tell from my photos that there was no A/C in the airport? Everyone was fanning themselves and those of us with German heritage were especially dripping sweat. Literally dripping.

This screenshot says it feels like 92 degrees. Outside. It was a sauna inside.

A friendly Homeland Security guy told us we’d have good luck of our flight going out because it was a morning flight. The afternoons ones were more likely to be canceled. Good! We did indeed board ontime and the airplane felt so cool and comfortable! We had to rearrange seats to sit with our kids.

I told people that I wouldn’t relax until the airplane was at least halfway to Florida so if there was an emergency we wouldn’t u-turn to San Juan. Maybe that was a premonition because about 10 minutes after take off I kid you not, they TOTALLY made the dreaded announcement “if there is a doctor on board or anyone with medical training please identify yourself to the flight attendants.” I’ll admit I felt anger at whomever had fallen ill. Thankfully there was a doctor onboard who tended to the lady and they laid her on the floor near the front of the plane. Her elderly husband was sitting next to Trevor and they kept asking him questions about her medical history and her meds. Poor guy. We shared our snacks with him.

Arriving in Atlanta was emotional for the whole plane. I could sense a collective relief. We all waited patiently for the ill lady and her husband to leave first.

I only broke down in tears when we were rearranging our seats on the second flight so our kids could sit next to us. One guy was reluctant to move away from his window spot. The flight attendant tried to be helpful by reminding me that next time I should select seats when purchasing the tickets. That did it! I explained that someone else bought us tickets on Sunday etc. etc. After that nobody complained too much about being booted out of their seats and the flight attendants kept asking me if I was ok all the way to Milwaukee.

I don’t know if anyone read this far, but thanks for taking an interest. I feel sad for leaving my friends. We had to take care of our own family but I want to be there to support them. I’m sad for Puerto Rico but hopefully this will allow improvements to blossom in the long run. I’m actually looking forward to getting back and starting a routine again. After all, it’s home.

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7 Responses to Fleeing Maria

  1. Jen says:

    I read your blog all the time! Glad you & your family are safe. Praying for everyone on the island, I’m from NYC, everyone here has family in PR! Help is on the way

  2. Lea says:

    Me too. Thanks for sharing your story

  3. Barbara Schutt says:

    Glad to hear you made it back to the States and I’m still following this journey!

  4. Carol Harm says:

    What an ordeal, Laura! So Glad that you a) survived and b) are with family!
    I hope you are able to return “home” soon!

  5. JOanna Palmer says:

    I am so glad you blog! I have been thinking about you all and have been frustrated with the lack of news about Puerto Rico.

  6. Mary says:

    Glad you and your family made it. Glad the lady who had fallen ill on your flight turned out fine. So, how can people help those in Puerto Rico who cannot flee?

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