Antonia Santos, 75, stayed up until 3 a.m. on Thursday, watching the news and worrying about her son, Angel Morales, who lives on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. She had not been able to reach him for more than 24 hours, since Hurricane Maria slammed into the island, flooding roads, knocking out power, and destroying homes.
“I’m very worried because I don’t have a way to communicate,” she said, wiping away tears as she spoke in the bedroom of her apartment crammed with family photos and Puerto Rican flags in Villa Victoria, a heavily Puerto Rican housing development in Boston’s South End. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s just very difficult.”
Across Massachusetts, home to the fifth largest Puerto Rican community in the mainland United States, Hurricane Maria provoked anxiety, dread, and the determination to reach loved ones and, eventually, help the island rebuild. On Thursday, many people with children, parents, and other relatives on the island were desperate to hear from them after phone lines and Internet service were severed in many areas.
“Everybody in the community is on pins and needles because no information is coming in,” said Hector Cruz, board president of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a nonprofit community development corporation that provides preschool, arts programs, and other services to Villa Victoria residents. He said community leaders are discussing ways they can help the island recover.
“Right now, it’s just wait until we get some news, and hopefully we’ll start receiving information in the next 24 hours, and then we’ll get food, water, and whatever else we need,” he said Thursday. “We have to count on everyone here in the mainland to assist in any way we can when we receive the call to help our family and friends.”
Until then, residents here had little to do but wait for a text, a phone call, or an e-mail. Some 95 percent of the wireless cell sites on the island were not working Thursday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission told reporters.
Inside her apartment in Villa Victoria, Juliana Perez, 67, held her phone and a crumpled piece of paper with numbers for her family members in Puerto Rico, including her son, Carlos Diaz, who lives in the mountainous central region of the island. She said she had not been able to reach him since the hurricane hit. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I don’t know if his house fell. It’s made of wood.”
Carla M. Berríos Cruz had not heard from her mother and siblings, who live on the northwestern coast of Puerto Rico, and other relatives in nearby San Juan. “The rest of the island went silent,” Berríos Cruz said. “I am desperate.”
More than 300,000 Puerto Ricans live in Massachusetts, making them by far the largest Latino community in the state. Nearly one-third live in Springfield, Holyoke, and other Western Massachusetts communities, and about one-quarter live in Greater Boston.
David Silva, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicopee, said there was a feeling of helplessness for many in Massachusetts as they absorbed images of residents packed into shelters or picking through crushed homes and wondered: “Is that someone I know?”
Fears about family and friends, he said, were compounded by worries about how the island, already reeling from a debt and bankruptcy crisis, would recover from what has been called the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in a century. Officials have said it could take months to restore power to some areas.
“Most people here think this is the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back,” Silva said. “Puerto Rico was in a bad economic state, and this is going to kill it. We’re hoping President Trump will help.”
On Thursday, Trump signed a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, which will make federal aid available. It’s not clear how much assistance the island will receive.
In the meantime, Puerto Ricans in Massachusetts were organizing plans to help. One Facebook group called #PuertoRicoStrong had nearly 700 members and counting on Thursday. Many were also listening to Radio Isla 1320, a Puerto Rican radio station that has been live-streaming reports on Facebook.
Jessica Torres, 38, was among those who had managed to get news about family in Puerto Rico. On Thursday, she got a call from her sister, who had spoken to a cousin about their relatives in Morovis, in the central part of the island. Several family homes had been destroyed, but aunts, uncles, and cousins were all safe, Torres said. “It’s a relief to know they’re all good,” she said.
Linnette Speel, an executive assistant at Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, was still waiting for that kind of call. She said she was unable to concentrate at work on Thursday as she worried about her family in Adjuntas and Utuado in the center of the island, and her 90-year-old grandmother in Arecibo on the northern coast. “I’m just praying I get at least a call, or text, or something,” she said.
The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C., said people can call 202-778-0710 to check on loved ones but are urging people to be patient if the line is busy. The agency also has a website outlining how people can help http://prfaa.pr.gov/unitedforpuertorico/Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Conti can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.