SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Matt Lozon became trapped, marooned, stuck in a holding pattern at the international airport here. He slept every night on the floor in Terminal D, part of a horde of travelers hoping to score a precious ticket for a flight off the island. He lives in Idaho, which might as well be on a different planet.
“I just feel like there’s no hope,” he said late Monday. “Why can’t we get out of here? Why won’t they get us out of here?”
Getting off Puerto Rico and other storm-ravaged Caribbean islands has been an exercise in frustration, often culminating in despair, rage and another grim night in a sweltering airport with no air conditioning and the steady boil of angry voices.
While travel within the U.S. territory remains perilous — with washed-out and debris-strewn roads and damaged bridges — airports are gradually reopening. But Hurricane Maria severely damaged the radar system in the island’s capital of San Juan, and, with limited air traffic control, there are safety concerns that curtail the pace of arrivals and departures.
In the hot and humid airport, people are upset with the feeble supply of reliable information from the government, and they rarely hear encouraging news from the airlines. Some people are fleeing damaged or destroyed homes, and are seeking refuge on the mainland. Others are accompanying elderly or ailing family members who need medical care that the island right now cannot readily provide.
Illumination comes from fluorescent lights powered by generators, but there are dim places in the terminals, and airline workers have been operating by flashlight in many cases. There are no computers powered up, no printers; everything is done with paper and handwriting, as if this were civil aviation in the 1950s.
American Airlines on a normal day has seats for about 3,000 passengers on 20 scheduled flights from San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. Monday and Tuesday, American had a single flight going out each day. The airline was flying a widebody jet with 300 seats. Wednesday, with airport conditions gradually improving, American expected to get three flights in and out.
“There’s no aircraft that can hold 3,000 people, and there’s obviously a backlog of individuals,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.
JetBlue, the island’s most active carrier, has had six flights a day operating out of Terminal A, but they are designated as relief flights, focused on bringing in supplies and emergency personnel, and the airline hasn’t yet sold seats to customers on the inbound flights. Customers can, however, book a seat on the planes leaving the island, though the airline warns that lines will be long. JetBlue says it has carried 3,600 people off the island as of Tuesday.
“Given the difficult conditions, every flight that makes it out is an accomplishment,” JetBlue spokesman Doug McGraw said in an email.
When a passenger does get on a plane, and it taxis toward the runway, there might yet be a three-hour delay on the tarmac.
American managed to get three jets to Puerto Rico on Friday, but a fourth flight was canceled and a fifth was ordered by officials at the San Juan air traffic control tower to turn around in midair and return to Miami, Feinstein said. The airport was overburdened.
Police have been herding airline customers to Terminal D to sleep on the floor, which initially was still wet and sandy, Lozon said. He said every night he was told he had a flight, but every night the flight was canceled. Once he was at the gate with a boarding pass in his hand and was turned away — another bust.
His perseverance paid off, and he finally got out Tuesday, landing Wednesday in Boise, Idaho.
One woman traveling with two dogs expressed outrage about the situation in the airport and on the island generally. She said she was evacuated from St. Martin to Puerto Rico by the U.S. military after Hurricane Irma came through the islands two weeks ago.
Then Maria roared in, and her hotel lost power and decided to evacuate all guests. Another hotel let her and her two dogs sleep in the lobby for two nights but then asked her to leave. A shelter turned her away because it already was at capacity. She went to another shelter in Old San Juan but did not feel safe.
So now she sat on the floor of Terminal C, miserable, befuddled, aghast.
“This is a joke,” she said. “The government needs to get this place organized and get us out of here. Everyone who wants to leave should be allowed to leave. There’s no place to stay. Why is no one helping us?”
The feeling of being trapped is not confined to Puerto Rico. Airports have been knocked out in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in many other places across the Caribbean.
On the island of Dominica, where the infrastructure was largely destroyed by Maria, the final 300 students at Ross University School of Medicine, most of them Americans, evacuated by boat on Tuesday, sailing to St. Lucia for further transport by air to Miami and points beyond.
“The facilities came out okay,” said Ernest Gibble, spokesman for Adtalem, an education company that owns Ross University. “The surrounding island did not.”
Among those who got off Dominica this week was a first-year medical student who is a native of North Potomac, Md., and a graduate of George Washington University.
He had texted his father, Nick Singh Gumer, a finance director for a District government agency, as Hurricane Maria arrived with Category 5 winds. The father told him to text every 15 minutes, but the communication came to an end Monday night. For two nights and two days, there was no word from him.
“It was horrible, those 48 hours, unimaginable,” the father said.
The son made it out by boat to St. Lucia on Monday after a 14-hour sail during which the passengers were given nothing to eat but chips. The medical student flew to Miami on Wednesday.
Back at the San Juan airport, Jose Carmona, 44, had found a spot on the floor in Terminal B where he could lean back against a large column as he read the Bible on his lap.
Carmona had come to the island to be with his elderly parents during the hurricane. He had been trying to leave for three days as of Tuesday afternoon. He has arrived at the airport each morning at 5 a.m. and has stayed until 3 p.m., when the ticket agents stop working for the day. Each day, he has been disappointed. Tuesday he decided to stay all night, sleeping on the floor of the airport, hoping to get a flight back to Florida to be with his wife and two children.
“I was number 64 on the list for a seat yesterday and did not make it on,” he said. “Tomorrow I am number 177. There’s not much of a chance, I know, but I hear they are bringing two planes this time.”
“My heart is torn,” he said. “I worry about my parents. Their lives are fragile, and with the island in the situation it’s in, anything could happen. They could get sick and not be able to get medicine. They could die.”
He worked to control his emotions.
“I need to be with my family,” he said. “I need to leave.”
The airlines have capped ticket prices — JetBlue, for example, is charging $135 per seat — but there also are charter flights. One scheduled for Wednesday, a Boeing 737, was slated to bring 100 people to Miami for $1,200 a seat.
Eric Vos, chief federal public defender for the District of Puerto Rico, arranged a spot on the flight for his wife, Karen. He has been worried about security on the island. A neighbor had offered him a handgun. He believed an increased police and military presence might help ease the tension or could exacerbate it. In any case, Karen Vos plans to fly to Miami and then travel to Maine, where they have a home.
“I feel guilty,” Karen Vos said. “I don’t want to leave everyone on the island.”
Another person who escaped is Jayme Amos, who lives in the resort town of Palmas Del Mar, which took a direct blow from Maria as it made landfall.
“The storm was a complete horror show: We were running out of food, no electricity,” he said this week at the small, private Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci airport on Isla Grande in Miramar. As he spoke, a turboprop plane appeared in the distance, making its approach.
It was the plane that was going to take him and his family off the island.
Amos’s town had been devastated, but a neighbor had given him a ride into San Juan, and soon Amos and his family, including his wife, two children, his parents and his dog, Adi, were given shelter in the home of the neighbor’s landlord. Another friend steered Amos to a charter flight company. And so here he was, about to evacuate to Fort Lauderdale.
“It was miracle after miracle,” Amos said.
But some miracles aren’t free of charge. The charter flight cost $15,000.
Achenbach reported from Washington.