This week, the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport has been the escape valve of hundreds of people hoping to leave the island of Puerto Rico amid the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
San Juan resident Angélica Velázquez, a psychologist at the island’s Department of Education, was heading to New York to wait out the crisis.
“It’s a very difficult situation. I understand that all people have been in good spirits, but it is very difficult, “said Velázquez, adding that her house was flooded and her bathroom collapsed out of the side of her home. “Given the situation of not having water or light, I decided to leave,” she said.
Twelve commercial flights had departed the International Airport by Wednesday, according to spokesman Damarisse Martinez, and about 20,000 people were on the waiting list for flights since the hurricane struck.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of flights should increase as efforts continue to restore radar, navigation aid systems and other equipment affected by the storm.
Meanwhile, people are waiting.
Aida Vázquez, 71, was waiting with her daughter and a grandson to board a plane bound for Florida.
“She did not want to leave me alone,” said Vázquez, recalling the fury of Maria on the island. “I [was in Puerto Rico for] Hurricane Hugo, George, and those horrible winds, the noise…” she said.
Her house in Carolina on the northeast coast of the island was not damaged, but much like thousands of Puerto Ricans, she still has no water or electricity. Vazquez said she hopes her island will “try to push forward.”
As airport lines grew and slowly shifted, more harrowing stories popped up.
Merlie Hernandez arrived on the island, vacationing from Orlando, Florida, shortly before Hurricane Irma and remained in Puerto Rico with her family in Bayamón. What she had hoped would be a lovely family vacation soon became a disaster.
“We could not do anything, this was really terrible chaos. We have had hurricanes, but this has been a devastating, very sad thing, “said Hernandez, 44. This has been pretty steep. Miraculously we found a ticket and we bought it fast,” adding that plane tickets had gone up from $80 to $400 in a short span of time.
Her family’s plan is to get their 73-year-old father to travel to Florida as soon as possible since the roof of his home was razed by Maria. From Florida, they plan to file a complaint with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The airport is expected to increase the number of U.S. commercial flights departing from Puerto Rico, while international flights continue to wait.
Among the hundreds leaving the island, there were also foreign students returning home to their family in the U.S, at least until the situation in Puerto Rico stabilizes and universities resume classes.
“We are going to give it some time while they call us back to classes, then we will return,” said Rosa María Becerra, a nursing student at the Adventist University of the Antilles in Mayagüez.
Becerra recounted the experience of the past days on the island.
“It’s been very difficult because we had to wait to get a (telephone) signal,” she said. Her friend, Liliana Martinez, 21, also a nursing student, would travel there. Both are of Mexican nationality and reside in California, where they were heading.
“We leave (Thursday), we are going to sleep out here,” Becerra said, adding that it was the first time they had experienced a hurricane. To reach San Juan, they said, they had to ask for help “house by house,” until someone could transport them.