Vacations are not supposed to go like this. Never did I imagine that instead of swimming in the Caribbean, we would be trudging through sewage-contaminated water in a desperate attempt to reach the airport. The airport, like everything else in Puerto Rico, was crippled. No electricity, no flights. This was the reality that my wife and I, along with six of our closest friends, were facing days after Maria paid visit to Puerto Rico.
It was at the airport hotel that our fate would change. A member of our group, desperately searching for answers, located someone from FEMA. We were directed to a person who would take us to a shelter in the nearby town of Carolina. The uncertainty of the days ahead filled us all with anxiety, fear and helplessness. But soon we learned how fortunate and blessed we really were: We were about to see the selflessness and compassion of the Puerto Rican community.
Maria Teresa Serrano Elementary school was our home the next five days. We slept on military-style cots in the school cafeteria and showered with a hose. There was no power. But we were lucky: We were about to come under the compassionate care of the Puerto Rican people. Despite everything they themselves had suffered, volunteers and government officials spent their days protecting us, providing for us, caring for us and working tirelessly to help us find our way home.
A gentle man by the name of George Vargas, who worked for the shelter, spent his days and nights doing all he could to make everyone forget their circumstances. Every time he left for the day, George would take our cellphones to his home to charge them while his generator still had fuel. He downloaded movies to his tablet so that 20 or so people could huddle around it and escape reality for a few hours. (The fitting film selection for our first night: “The Wizard of Oz.”)
Another local, Carlos, left almost every day to search for friends and family and to wait in hours-long lines at the ATM. Upon returning to the shelter, he would share stories of what was happening outside our gates. One day, he came back with morcillas, Puerto Rican blood sausage, for our group to try — he didn’t want us to come to Puerto Rico, he said, without getting to try some of its delicacies.
We also met Gabriela Rosario Diaz and her co-workers form the Carolina Tourism Group. Gabriela spent five days doing everything she could to ensure our safety, our sanity and the hope that we would return home soon. She arranged transportation for us and others at the shelter to travel to the local CVS to obtain any necessities or just to splurge for an ice-cold beverage. Multiple times, she found rides for us to the airport, in hopes that we might finally be able to secure a flight home. She advised us and kept us informed.
On Sept. 26, Gabriela again came to the shelter to check in on us. This visit was different. She had taken it upon herself to go to the airport and research flights we had booked for the 27th. When she arrived at the shelter, she held in her hands boarding passes for our flight. It was the most concrete sign of hope we’d had after four previously canceled flights.
The next morning, Gabriela and her co-workers picked up our group. Instead of dropping us off at the curb and wishing us luck, Gabriela waited with us for hours in awful conditions. She helped us navigate a very busy and chaotic airport. She translated for us and spoke on our behalf. And like a nervous parent, Gabriela kept eyes on us all the way until we passed through security and were off to our gate and hopefully on our way home.
Most of the people at the shelter had been left with nothing. Many of them had not heard from their families, and their families had not heard from them. Unlike our group, who would eventually return home to our families, pets, jobs and normalcy, they were left with the daunting task of completely rebuilding their lives.
In times of crisis, we tend to get lost in our own tragedy, pain, loss and suffering. The proud women and men of Puerto Rico were so compassionate and caring to a group of strangers during a miserable crisis. None of us can ever repay these amazing people for what they did for us. We are so grateful for the human kindness that our fellow Americans bestowed upon us.