After Hurricane Maria

Sleepless nights and walkie-talkies


In the mornings after Hurricane Maria, Sylvia Estrada-Cruz drank nothing but salty coffee.

She cried not knowing if her family in Puerto Rico was dead or alive. Mayra, her wife, would read updates each morning, doing her best to separate fact from fiction in order to help Sylvia through the pain of not knowing.

Sylvia, who lives with Mayra in Van Cortlandt Village, had been in touch with her family on Sept. 19, the day before the hurricane made landfall, making sure they had all the supplies they needed and were adequately prepared. She’s from Patillas, a seaside city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast. And it’s where most of her family lives. 

As Hurricane Maria carved its destructive path through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Sylvia called and texted her family nonstop to make sure they were OK.

“It was like a jet was over the house,” Sylvia said of the howling winds she could hear on the other end of the line. “It felt the whole time like the house was going to be ripped from the ground.”

By 6:30 that morning, the eye of the storm was passing over Patillas, bringing with it a semblance of calm to an already ravaged island. An avowed daredevil and would-be reporter, Sylvia’s older sister Ida ventured outside to see the scope of the situation. 

The eye was nothing more than a respite not just for the family in Puerto Rico, but for a panic-stricken and sleep-deprived Sylvia and Mayra in New York because it meant more destruction was on its way. When the winds picked up, Ida retreated into the house, where the rest of the family was hiding out.

After that, all communication ceased.

Radio silence

“From there, it was torture,” Sylvia said.

That same night, Sylvia read online the dam in Patillas broke, flooding her mind with images of tsunami-level devastation. It had been half a day since she last heard from her family, and Sylvia was certain they were dead.

With power lines and cell towers destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a popular smartphone app called Zello rose to the occasion. It functions essentially like a walkie-talkie, the two-way radio device popular with police and the military. The app allows for the creation of location-specific channels on which people can both listen and call in. 

“It was like a comm center in a war,” Mayra said of the scene in their apartment on Sept. 21.

Sylvia was camped on a Patillas-specific channel searching for any sign of her family. After about 10 minutes of anguished call-and-response, a voice cut through the desperation. Someone had seen her sister in the town. She was alive.

Yet, the anguish was still there. They had yet to make a direct connection with Sylvia’s family. 

Hurricane Maria was a Category 5 storm when it made landfall Sept. 20 — the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928 when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane ravaged the island over the course of two days. The damage from Maria is extensive, from the 43 dead to island-wide shortages of water, food, medicine, gas and cash. 

Homes have been destroyed. Walls ripped off buildings. Puerto Rico’s lush natural landscape now looks post-apocalyptic. 

Picking up the pieces

A full recovery could take years and cost tens of billions of dollars, compounding the island’s sagging economy. When the hurricane arrived, Puerto Rico had more $70 billion in debt, which brought a loose promise from President Trump.

“You know, they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street,” the president told Geraldo Rivera in a Fox News interview Oct. 3. “And we’re going to have to wipe that out.”

Trump offered no specifics as to what that would entail. A day later, his administration walked back that promise.

“I wouldn’t take it word-for-word with that,” Mick Mulvaney, the management and budget office director told CNN.

Whereas the federal response was slow to start and may soon disappear, celebrities and corporations have rushed to fill the void. Media moguls like Mark Cuban and performer Pitbull have lent private planes for relief efforts. JetBlue capped fares at $135. And “Hamilton” writer Lin-Manuel Miranda released “Almost Like Prayer,” a musical tribute to Puerto Rico where all proceeds benefit the Hispanic Federation Unidos Disaster Relief Fund.

All things considered, those on the island struggle to make ends meet, yet those like Sylvia’s extended family have found strength in each other.

Still waiting

Sept. 22 passed with no direct communication between Sylvia and her family. Her coffee that morning was salty from her tears, as it was the next day, which happened to be her birthday.

“There was no celebration,” Sylvia said. 

Instead, she and Mayra were preoccupied with getting in touch with Sylvia’s family. Mayra heard from her family in Bayamón, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, within two days of the storm’s arrival.

On Sept. 24, Sylvia and Mayra got together with family on Long Island. It was less a family reunion than it was a support group because everyone was feeling the effects of the hurricane. 

The mood was somber. At one point, Sylvia received a message from a number she didn’t recognize. It contained a video. It was her sister Ida wishing her a happy birthday. Just four days before, she had ventured out into the eye of the storm. 

Sylvia was overcome with joy, as was everyone in the room. They’d finally seen, with their own eyes, a member of their family was OK. 

In the weeks since, communication has been sporadic. Puerto Rico has yet to fully restore its telecommunications infrastructure. Occasionally, someone from Sylvia’s family will get a weak cell signal as they make the journey from Patillas to San Juan, pulling over to put a call through. When other drivers see that someone’s found a signal, they all stop to get on their phones to communicate with others.

Nearly a month later, Sylvia and Mayra still worry about their families back home. But knowing their families are getting by as best they can, their coffee is no longer salty.