Flights Are Picking Up At Puerto Rico Airport, But The FAA Is Concerned About Radar Damage
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Since Hurricane Maria shattered Puerto Rico, people have been going to San Juan's International Airport to get off the island. Airport officials have their hands full, maintaining order, bringing in humanitarian aid flights, getting commercial flights out and providing water and food for hundreds of people who are stranded there. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: This is the only working airport on the island. Unless people want to wait for a cruise ship, it's the only way to escape Puerto Rico. The island has lost 80 percent of its electrical grid. Forty-four percent of the population has no running water. Terminal A of Luis Munoz Marin Airport is a sort of sweltering refugee camp. Lines snake through the building filled with sweating travelers who try to stay positive and pray their flights don't get canceled.
ALBA CASTRO: There's a possibility that there's a flight for tomorrow morning in Delta. We are just, you know, praying for it.
BURNETT: That's Alba Castro, a 37-year-old art teacher. She's trying to get her and her mother, Maria, back to Orlando where they live. They came here 11 days ago to attend the funeral of her 93-year-old grandmother. They thought there would be enough time to get home before Hurricane Maria hit. But with so many Puerto Ricans evacuating, they couldn't get a flight out. So they weathered the storm in her grandmother's house in Mayaguez. Early this morning, they packed up water, sausages, crackers and headed here to the airport to wait for a flight. Because cell service is spotty, Castro says she's only been able to speak to her family once. I asked her what she'd like to tell them.
CASTRO: That mommy's trying to do everything that is possible to go back. I have a 16-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 2-year-old. They need me, you know, my students, my job, you know, if I don't work. My kids, you know, it's been more than a week without talking to them, seeing them, you know, being there for them. And it's tough.
BURNETT: Friends Juan Natal and Raul Amado have it worse. The forklift operator and machinist have been sleeping on a concrete walkway outside the terminal since Saturday. They don't have confirmed flights until the middle of next week. They're trying to get back to their respective homes in Springfield, Mass., and Bronx, N.Y. They both came back to the island to visit sick parents, then got stuck.
JUAN NATAL: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Natal says he spends his time walking around singing to himself and visiting with Raul. He says it's slightly cooler outside than inside the cavernous unair-conditioned terminal. He says he has diabetes, and he's used up his insulin and nearly all of his money. Salvation Army brings military meals ready to eat. The airport gives him water. The director of the San Juan airport says currently 21 emergency generators run skeleton services there. Once they get more electricity, he says they'll be able to power up more TSA security checkpoints and more departure gates, but he doesn't know when that will be. Director Agustin Arellano says there were eight commercial flights yesterday but 18 today. They were all sold out.
AGUSTIN ARELLANO: All the people and they want to leave regardless of where.
BURNETT: So you have - you had people who were coming to the airport and say I'll go anywhere.
ARELLANO: Yeah. And I says where you want to go? He says I don't know - everywhere.
BURNETT: The airport director says things are improving day by day. The day after the storm, he says, there were 5,000 panicked people here with 500 sleeping on the floor. Today, there were about a thousand in the terminal and only 140 slept on the hard tile last night. One of them was Joel Delgado and his family of 12. They've been sleeping here since Friday in the stifling terminal building that smells of perspiring human bodies. A DJ at a Christian radio station outside San Juan, Delgado says he's been praying nonstop.
JOEL DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish) That's my prayer.
BURNETT: That God gives us mercy that we'll be able to get on the airplane.
DELGADO: That's - that's the word.
BURNETT: The Delgado family is trying to leave Puerto Rico to go on a long-planned cruise that leaves next week from south Florida, but Joel says they don't really care about the cruise anymore.
DELGADO: I just want to go there and be out of this madness.
BURNETT: He says they just want to go to a place where there's light, showers and air conditioning. John Burnett, NPR News, San Juan.
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