They were the five longest days of my life.
I checked my phone every minute of every hour, constantly hoping the names “Inga e Ingo” — my grandparents — would pop up on my cellphone screen. For five days and five nights, they didn’t. In search of answers, I headed to social media: a blessing and a curse. All it did was replace the big, black question mark with a knife-sharp view of reality.
There, I’d see videos and pictures of the devastation: What Hurricane Maria did to the roads, the palm trees, the bridges, homes and streets that watched me grow up to the person I am today. We were in Puerto Rico just a month before Maria hit the island, but I never thought I was saying goodbye to the comfort of knowing my family was safe.
In the hours after Maria hit, we got sporadic texts from my aunt and cousin in the San Juan area. Suddenly, the conversation stalled. My mom, sister, cousins and I, who all live in different areas of the mainland, would text on our group chat to calm each other down. That night we heard from them: They were safe and sound but scared.
That’s something Puerto Ricans don’t tend to be when hurricanes hit because we’ve been through so many. This one was different. This one would change Puerto Rico’s history… but never the people.
Hours passed and I heard nothing from my grandparents.
My grandma had attempted to reassure me the night before: “Todo va a estar bien, Paola. Tengo el celular cargado para llamarte.”
Everything will be okay, Paola. I have my cellphone fully charged to call you.
We soon learned a charged phone was no good without power or service, both of which Arecibo lost in the storm.
The only way we could see how their town had fared was through videos and photographs of flooded streets, downed power lines and buildings without walls or roofs. The gas station that had always greeted us on our way into the town wasn’t even recognizable. That is all we had. Trust me, it wasn’t reassuring.
On Thursday, after 24 hours without contact, I reached out to people on my Facebook page. By then I was begging: If anyone happened to be in Arecibo, please check on my family.
I’d check again 12 minutes later: No answer.
Hours later: No answer.
The update didn’t come from a friend. It came from a stranger’s message on my professional page, telling me his friend was driving to Arecibo to check on her grandparents. He gave me her phone number, and I immediately dialed it. No ring. I texted the number and waited countless hours until a reply from the stranger finally came.
She asked for my grandparents’ address and names. I sent her all that info, a picture from Google Maps, and about 24 “gracias.”
This is what Puerto Rico is about: friendly people who go out of their way for others. It’s a blessing to humankind.
The next day, she texted me again. My grandparents weren’t home, but the neighbors said they were “safe and sound!” But not home… where were they? That crumb of information, incomplete as it was, sustained us for a while.
Thursday turned to Friday turned to Saturday, and more and more videos and pictures of flooded neighborhoods popped up. Posts showed people begging for food and water. My heart was racing again. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else — I had to know how my family was doing.
We got the call Sunday night. I was in New Jersey with my parents, having dinner with my boyfriend's family. At the time I had a terrible fever and stomach ache, but when I heard my mom's ringtone go off and saw the screen light up with “Inga e Ingo,” all the sickness and worry went away.
As soon as I heard Inga’s comforting voice and her contagious laugh, I could picture her smiling through all the struggle. She’s the strongest woman I know, and I couldn’t help but cry. The release my mother, father, sister and I felt that night was enormous.
She said the neighbors’ mango tree, which had watched my mother grow from her childhood into adulthood, fell on their home. She said their back rooms flooded a little during the hurricane, and that they were OK thanks to the neighbors, who helped them through it. Again, those are Puerto Ricans: lending a helping hand at all times.
I write this because now we need a helping hand from all of you.
There are still millions who are waiting to hear from their loved ones, millions who would do anything to be there right now to help.
The people of Puerto Rico, these American citizens, my people, are without power, food, water, ice, fuel, a place to sleep, medicine, the basic things we need to survive. Things we take for granted every day.
So here is how you can help:
Donate items or your time. There are donation drives going on all around the Tri-State. They accept nonperishable foods, and encourage people to bring:
Water bottles, baby formula, baby wipes, diapers, canned and dry pet food, personal hygiene products, first aid kits, hand sanitizer, mosquito repellant, batteries, flashlights, blankets or pillows, cots, clothes, laundry detergent, sanitizing wipes, feminine hygiene products, animal crates, trash bags, camping items.
If you can’t donate items, donate your time by participating in one of them.
Do you know someone? There’s a significant need for pilots, private planes or helicopters to help get people to the mainland, especially those in hospitals who need urgent care. Likewise, there’s a large need for medicine, doctors and nurses. If you know of anyone, our family friend asks you to reach out at 786-292-2247 or 843-921-8612.
You can donate money at:
There are several other fundraisers you’ll spot around social media, too.
Thank you. You are helping us rebuild our paradise one item, one dollar and one person at a time.
Paola Suro is a general assignment reporter at WCPO.