Signs of an Island on the Mend

Hurricane Maria barreled into Puerto Rico at 155 miles per hour on Sept. 20, 2017, making landfall just south of Yabucoa Harbor. For 30 hours, it shook and soaked the island. When the storm finally stopped, Koralie Etienne’s family emerged from the bathroom where they’d been hiding to take inventory of the damage.

Their house, about 15 miles outside of San Juan and well north of Maria’s eye, had emerged relatively unscathed, but devastation surrounded them. Streets were under water. The park down the street was covered in upended trees tossed about like matchsticks. The family would lose power for a month. Etienne’s sister would be forced to transfer to a high school in Florida to finish her senior year. And her father would have to halt his business deals with clients on neighboring islands, adding financial challenges to the physical ones.

Etienne, a marketing major and tennis player at Duquesne University, longed to go home, but her mother told her to wait. It wasn’t safe and it wasn’t cheap. The price of flights into San Juan jumped to nearly $1,000 in the weeks after Maria.

More than a year has passed now, and Etienne has been home a half-dozen times. On each visit, she notices more signs of an island on the mend. The power is on. The debris is mostly gone. More businesses are open. Cruise ships have returned to dock in the Port of San Juan.

And, in another signal that Puerto Rico’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry has come back to life, Allegiant Air will resume a nonstop flight from Pittsburgh to San Juan beginning Saturday, Dec. 15.

The once-a-week service, which originates at PIT with a Pittsburgh-based flight crew, departs on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. and arrives in San Juan at 12:20 p.m. The return flight departs the island at 1 p.m. and arrives in Pittsburgh at 4:16 p.m.

PIT’s Vice President of Air Service Development Bryan Dietz says the service is not only indicative of the island’s rebuilding after Maria, but it also points to PIT’s commitment to growing key markets, including Latin America.

“What’s fascinating about air service development is that it’s the fastest way to match supply and demand. What Allegiant is saying is that the island has recovered enough that the demand is there,” Dietz said. “It’s going to help us reconnect with the island and with Latin America.”

Before Allegiant started seasonal service in December 2016, it had been a decade since PIT offered nonstop service to San Juan.

From Pittsburgh, Loving Support

Before Allegiant started seasonal service in December 2016, it had been a decade since PIT offered nonstop service to San Juan. That was right around the time Virginia Laboy-De la Cruz moved to Pittsburgh from Coamo, a town in south-central Puerto Rico.

In all that time, she’s only been back to Puerto Rico twice — once in 2010 and again last year to deliver relief supplies to her hometown and visit her three adult children still living there. Like Etienne, she found service to Puerto Rico expensive and time-consuming. With layovers, it wasn’t unusual for travel to take upward of nine hours.

“I’ve been helping my family economically, so traveling has been very difficult,” Laboy-De la Cruz said. “The prospect of having affordable airfare and direct flights makes me feel hopeful that I will be able to see my family more often. My grandbabies are growing up without me.”

Hurricane Maria only intensified her longing for family. She wasn’t able to reach her children for an entire month after the storm hit.

“I think I cried every day from the moment the hurricane hit to the moment I heard my children’s voices,” she said.

Passengers pose for a photo taken before the inaugural flight between Pittsburgh and San Juan in December 2016.

And even after she reached them, Laboy-De la Cruz felt a helplessness to which she was not accustomed. As a young adult in Puerto Rico, she had often worked with the Red Cross during hurricane season, interviewing affected residents and connecting them with the resources they needed. Since she couldn’t be on the ground to help in the aftermath of Maria, she decided to do all she could from Pittsburgh.

Laboy-De la Cruz joined with several other Pittsburgh-based Puerto Ricans to form Pittsburgh Stands with Puerto Rico, an organization dedicated to supporting the island with physical and monetary resources. Their first request for donations last fall resulted in 50 pallets of food, flashlights, baby supplies and personal hygiene products being distributed to 500 families.

They followed that up with a call for medical supplies and monetary donations, which Laboy-De la Cruz delivered last December. Even after all of the news coverage and phone calls with her children, she was shocked by the conditions. The winds had lashed the island so hard, houses appeared to have exploded. One afternoon, struggling to drive through an area with downed trees and power lines, Laboy-De la Cruz begin to cry, thinking of how she would soon be returning to Pittsburgh, but her family would have to continue living on an island in peril.

“Leaving my children in Puerto Rico in those conditions was the most difficult thing I had to do,” she said.

Her children have reported improvements in the past year. But unlike Etienne’s hometown outside San Juan, Coamo’s recovery hasn’t been so speedy. Power was only restored in August, and many are still living with friends while they wait for the aid they need to repair their homes.

“We’re still focused on trying to help,” Laboy-De la Cruz said. “But people get emotionally dried out.”

The hurricanes are never going to cease — “we’re an island surrounded by water,” Etienne said — but both Laboy-De la Cruz and Etienne have hope that the kind of suffering Maria wrought can be curbed with better hurricane preparedness measures and a stronger link to the mainland. PIT’s nonstop flight into San Juan is just that kind of link — a way for Pittsburghers to see up close the beauty and resiliency of Puerto Rico.

“So much happened and there’s so much to say that sometimes it’s difficult to find the words,” Laboy-De la Cruz said.

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