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Puerto Ricans Face Challenges Trying To Leave The Island


When you go to book a flight, you probably get online or perhaps you pick up the phone. What if you couldn't do either of those things? Those are among the problems for many Puerto Ricans still trying to get a flight to the mainland. There are many other challenges, too. And this is five weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from San Juan.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: At the departure area of terminal B at San Juan's airport, Alexander Miranda is getting ready to send much of his family off to Chicago. He says there's just no way for them to get by right now in Puerto Rico.

ALEXANDER MIRANDA: I mean, there's no work. There's no work. The hurricane left many of the people without houses, without food, without water, no electricity. Right now, in my home, I just got water, no electricity for like a month right now.

BEAUBIEN: So Miranda's stepmom, his two younger brothers and their grandmother are all going to live with a relative in Illinois.

MIRANDA: Well, my sister has a basement, so they have a room, bathroom, everything set up for them. I mean, it's temporary, but I hope they can come back real soon. But I don't know if it's going to be possible. Maybe they got to stay two years. I don't know.

BEAUBIEN: Like, two years, really? It could be that - it could be that bad?


BEAUBIEN: And adding to the challenges facing people here in Puerto Rico, it's been incredibly hard at times to get a reservation for a flight off the island.

JORGE PONSA: As with any other business, really, the business interruption has been massive.

BEAUBIEN: Jorge Ponsa runs a travel agency called Travel Planners in San Juan. Both hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged the airport, causing it to shut down completely at times in September. Ponsa says once it did reopen, there was a huge backlog of people trying to fly out of Puerto Rico.

PONSA: I think they're able to do about 160 flights a day, but over 145 of those flights were humanitarian and military bringing in supplies and aid. So for many days, there was dozens and dozens and dozens of cancellations, and there was never an end in sight. So, you know, it created quite the hysteria because a lot of people wanted to leave.

BEAUBIEN: American Airlines, one of the biggest carriers flying to Florida from here, is running about a third fewer flights to Puerto Rico than before the storm. A spokesperson says the issue is that American hasn't been able to leave planes overnight in San Juan because of a shortage of hotel rooms for the crew.

PONSA: I do know it's a challenging situation right now, the hotel inventory. There's some hotels that are totally closed. The ones that are open are full to the rim with FEMA personnel, military personnel, other recovery efforts personnel. So although there is some inventory and availability, it's very, very limited.

BEAUBIEN: Ponsa says things got so bad that some people were organizing charter flights to ferry people out. He says there are more commercial flights now, but booking a seat on one of them can be difficult. Many people here no longer have Internet access. Many travel agencies remain closed. Ponsa says keeping his business open is a challenge every day. The office is running off a single generator after their other one broke down. Of his 40 employees, only two have electricity at home. Some still don't have running water. The phone and Internet service for the office cuts out constantly.

PONSA: Even though we have a phone and it's working, we hear repeatedly I'm having a hard time reaching you and more - most people are coming in. And that's what we've been seeing as of late, a lot of foot traffic.

BEAUBIEN: Getting flights particularly to Florida remains tough, but he says his agents can often find a solution. It might not be exactly the day or the route or the price that the passenger wants, but at least it's possible. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, San Juan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.