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‘I just need my mother’: The frantic quest to contact loved ones in Puerto Rico

People in Puerto Rico are using a local radio stations and writing on social media to communicate family following Hurricane Maria. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rosa Figueroa has called her 84-year-old mother, who lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico, every hour, on the hour, since Hurricane Maria hit early Wednesday. She hasn’t yet been able to make contact.

“I don’t know anything, and I’m so desperate,” said Figueroa, 51, of Zephyrhills, Fla. “It’s horrible.”

People with loved ones in Puerto Rico are frantically trying to get in touch after Hurricane Maria left a trail of devastation across the U.S. island in the Caribbean. Communication is in many places nonexistent, and much of Puerto Rico remained without power, making it impossible for many on the island to send or receive text messages, emails or phone calls.

Families and friends on the U.S. mainland, where an estimated 5 million Puerto Ricans live, took to the Internet, searching for any information about home towns, friends and family members. They posted photos of their grandmothers on Facebook, tweeted the locations of streets where their families live and called the offices of elected officials, seeking any help they could find.

Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage to Puerto Rico. Drone footage captured the scene in San Juan and Canóvanas on Sept. 21. (Video: Hector Santos Guia/The Washington Post)

“We’re just getting so many phone calls,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.). “People are desperate because they don’t know. They don’t know the whereabouts. They don’t know if they are fine — and it’s terrible.”

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It is a feeling Velázquez knows well: She has not been able to reach five of her brothers and sisters, all of whom live in Yabucoa, near where Maria made landfall with its most forceful winds on the southeast corner of Puerto Rico. A sister who lives near San Juan — the capital, on the northern coast — said her home was destroyed by flooding, Velazquez said.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Thursday night that she still has not heard from loved ones in Puerto Rico. “I have not heard from half my family, so myself, personally, the rest of my family here in the States, are exceedingly concerned,” Sotomayor said at the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit in Washington.

Vanessa Pahucki, a 36-year-old teacher from Nyack, N.Y., saw her mother in tears Wednesday morning. The family was concerned that they hadn’t yet heard from Pahucki’s uncle, who was in Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Pahucki muddled through her work day and decided to put her social media skills to use. She started “Loved Ones in Puerto Rico — Check In,” a Facebook page where people are posting the names of their families, requests for updates about municipalities and video from the island.

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“Any guayanilla news? Calle Guayacan?” one user wrote. “Desperate to find out information from Naranjito barrio Anones …,” wrote another.

Pahucki’s page now has more than 1,900 members. She heard from her uncle on Thursday night via WhatsApp. He is in a daze, she said, “exhausted but alive.”

The federal government is directing people to call the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration at 202-800-3133 (also on Twitter) or to email for help in reaching loved ones. The American Red Cross also has a Web page where people can mark themselves “safe and well” or search for friends and relatives. It also urges people to call a local radio station, WIPR, at 787-777-0940.

Intra-island communications have also been difficult, with few cellphone carriers working. People are waiting for stores to open so they can buy prepaid SIM cards. In Levittown, a suburb of San Juan, people drove around asking if anyone had seen their relatives or if they knew the location of the nearest shelters. One woman walked through flooded streets for more than an hour, trying to reach her parents’ house. Driving outside of the San Juan area is nearly impossible, and some people don’t have enough gas to make it that far.

Back in Florida, Figueroa is still waiting. She is disabled and does not work, so she has spent the past few days scouring the Internet and constantly listening to the radio or watching television for updates. Her mother went to a shelter, but her brother rode out the storm at the family home so he could stay with the three dogs.

Figueroa said her mother is on medication for high blood pressure. She also has vertigo and issues with her legs. The family on the mainland has been in touch with a sister, who lost everything in hurricane-related flooding.

She will continue to post online and make calls: to her mother, to the Red Cross, to her mother again. “If I have to walk to get my mother, I’ll walk when I get to Puerto Rico,” she said. “I just need my mother. I need to know what’s going on.”

Samantha Schmidt in Levittown, P.R., and Moriah Balingit in Washington contributed to this report.