SAN JUAN — Here was the assignment: Find a way to get to a place where nearly all commercial flights had been canceled, thousands of people were desperately fleeing, and many of the buildings and roads had been destroyed or badly damaged.
Also: Nearly all communications had been severed, electricity would be out for months, and running water for the majority of residents had ceased.
There were also reports of rampant violence, insufficient food and drinking water, hourslong lines for fuel, and no clear way to get back, if we found a way to get there.
“Good luck!” my editors said.
As a veteran reporter at the Globe, I’m accustomed to traveling with a moment’s notice, sometimes to inhospitable, precarious places.
But in the days after Hurricane Maria laid waste to much of Puerto Rico, there was no clear way how to get to the island.
A few weeks before, when Hurricane Irma ravaged the Virgin Islands, my colleague, photographer Jessica Rinaldi, and I easily booked flights to San Juan, took a cab to a marina, and boarded a boat bringing relief supplies to St. John.
Now, as we tried to find a way to get to Puerto Rico, every commercial flight listed online had been canceled. No military or other government agency would return my calls. And island-hopping in reverse didn’t seem like a good bet, as it wasn’t clear whether any boats were heading to Puerto Rico.
Eventually, after many calls, we found a relief operation sending private jets to San Juan from Opa-locka, near Miami. But few had seats available.
A woman from a charter service out of Houston promised to look out for us, and eventually, she found a flight with two seats the next morning.
So we booked an early commercial flight to Miami, stocked up on energy bars, and thanked our families for letting us leave without a return ticket. We also reserved a hotel room in San Juan through a travel agent, but when I called to confirm, there was no answer.
Shortly before I went to sleep that night, I received a message from the woman in Houston. The flight had been scrubbed.
So I called American Airlines to cancel our flight to Miami. When I reached an agent, I asked if there happened to be any flights to San Juan. Astonished, she found one leaving early the next morning – with two seats available.
I didn’t believe it until we were in the air. But not even our departure from Boston guaranteed we would make it to San Juan.
When we arrived at our layover in Philadelphia, the electronic board flashed a troubling message. Among the rows of “on time” connections was our 8:10 a.m. flight. “CANCELED,” it read.
We asked several agents what was going on, and they made some calls.
“It was too easy,” I told Jess.
But a few minutes later, the incredulous agents told us that somehow the sign was wrong. The flight was still on – and boarding. We would have to run to make it.
With heavy backpacks and Jess lugging camera equipment, we raced across the moving sidewalks through several terminals. Still a ways away, we heard an announcement for the final call to board our flight.
Now sprinting, we flagged down an airport employee driving a golf cart in the opposite direction, beseeching him to pick us up. He turned around, and we jumped on, thanking him as he weaved through the human traffic and dropped us at our gate.
We were the last to board.
• • •
When we landed, it took only a step off the jetway into the humid terminal at San Juan Luis Munoz Marin Airport to appreciate the dire crisis. Thousands of people had been waiting in the fetid, sweltering terminal for a flight out, many of them for days, as one flight after another had been canceled.
The first person I saw was a man wearing an orange T-shirt that read, “Another Day in Paradise.”
It was so hot in the airport, which lacked power and running water, that sweat began dripping from my hands, blotting the ink on my reporter’s pad. The terminal looked more like a refugee camp than an airport.
After interviewing a number of people who had been stranded, we went to see if we could rent a car. Jess had made a reservation, but given the communication problems, we doubted whether that meant anything.
When we found a small crowd in the dimly lit garage of the rental center, we knew we were in the right spot. We abandoned our reservation and waited as agents from national companies filled out rental contracts by hand, some using flashlights.
We were anxious about renting a car, given that we didn’t know how passable the roads would be or how we would get gas. We had heard stories about people waiting in lines as long as eight hours to fill up. So we opted for the insurance and prepaid for the final tank. (If we couldn’t find gas elsewhere, we figured, we could return the car and rent a new one.)
That plan seemed less promising when we found that most of the cars lacked a full tank. When Jess found one that was topped off, it had a flat tire. Eventually, we found a car that had working tires and enough gas to get around for a few days.
But before we could start reporting, we had to find a place to stay.
Using GPS from an offline app that I had downloaded before leaving, we found our way to the hotel in Old San Juan where we had booked a reservation. When we arrived, the place looked empty, and a tree had collapsed by the front door. A man standing in front told us it had been closed for three days.
He suggested we try another hotel nearby. We went to look and found all the windows covered with plywood. A spray-painted message in large, red letters read HOTEL CLOSED.
When we finally found one open, it was full. We were feeling so desperate that Jess asked the concierge if we could park in their garage and sleep in our car. We eventually found a hotel with available rooms, but not only was there no power, there was no running water, and the available rooms lacked windows and were stifling.
Standing on the roof, I found enough cellphone signal to text a source we had met a few weeks before who had been helping with the recovery efforts after Hurricane Irma pummeled the Virgin Islands. Now he was in San Juan and offering to allow us to sleep on the floor of his hotel room.
A few minutes later, he texted to say he found someone he had recently met who happened to have a spare bedroom and couch. We left to meet him right away.
That stranger became our guardian angel, even though his home had been destroyed in the hurricane. He was staying at a friend’s apartment in Old San Juan, and they welcomed us in. We were relieved to find that their place had a generator, allowing us to charge our batteries and take showers.
• • •
We spent much of the following week chronicling the devastation across the island — destroyed homes, overcrowded hospitals, collapsed bridges, and worse. We met the relatives of the dead, patients who had to wait dangerously long to get dialysis and chemotherapy, and ranchers whose livestock had been decimated during the storm.
We interviewed those who had to stick PVC pipes in the side of a mountain to get water, and others who were surviving off nothing more than the coffee they had left in their cupboards, remaining in flooded homes without roofs. Still others had to wait in lines from dawn to dusk just to do their laundry or withdraw cash from their banks.
When we finished our reporting, an editor had booked us on a flight out of St. Thomas, though it was unclear how we would get there. Then we learned that that flight had been canceled, courtesy of President Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico, which had closed much of the region’s airspace.
Getting a commercial flight out of San Juan felt like trying to get the last helicopter out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
Jess was able to book a ticket on a flight out of St. Thomas the following day, but there was only one seat.
My only real hope of getting home in a reasonable time was to hitch a ride on a relief flight.
With the help of the Houston outfit that we had initially planned to fly with down to San Juan, Jess found a flight to St. Thomas.
I would have to wait.
The night before, we went to the base of the relief operations at a private airport in San Juan.
After a volunteer at one charter company suggested I get my bags right away, I was left waiting on the tarmac as the last relief flight of the night left without me.
The volunteer advised me to return the next morning and wait again by the tarmac. But if I didn’t find a flight by 11:15, there would be no hope of leaving until at least that night, after Air Force One had left Puerto Rico.
A few hours passed, and just as I was abandoning hope, a woman popped into the office where I was waiting.
“Are you the one who needs a flight?” she asked me.
“Come with me — quickly,” she said.
We had about 15 minutes before the airspace would close.
I grabbed my bags and followed her to a golf cart. As she sped down the tarmac, Blackhawk helicopters were taking off nearby, and in the distance, a large Coast Guard cutter was patrolling the harbor. Near a hanger that had been destroyed in the hurricane, she dropped me off at the office of another charter company.
A few yards away was a newly fueled private jet, with seven people waiting beside it nervously. There was a woman carrying an oxygen machine, and another with a skin disease that had been exacerbated by the lack of air conditioning. There were also several stranded tourists.
The pilot was hurrying to make the final arrangements. When we finally boarded, there was only about three minutes left before the airspace would close.
I could hear the air traffic controllers talking to the pilots. At 11:15, just as we began taxiing toward the empty runway, a controller radioed the pilots. “All aircraft are now grounded,” he said tersely. “I can’t allow you to takeoff.”
A few tense minutes passed, as the pilots pleaded with the control tower. There were sick people on the flight, and we were ready to go, they told them.
After a long pause, the controllers came back to say they would grant an exception. With their approval, the pilots gunned the engines. In seconds, we were in the air — faster than the pilots had ever taxied before, they told me later.
Applause thundered throughout the cabin.
The guy sitting next to me took a deep breath. He was one of the tourists who had been stranded on the island since the hurricane.
“That was like hitting a three-pointer just at the buzzer,” he said.David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.