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'We don't even know when we're coming back': Puerto Ricans evacuate to Florida on a cruise ship

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

SAN JOSE, Puerto Rico--After Hurricane Maria struck, they survived the wind and rain, shortages of gas and food, even scared off a burglar who tried to break into their house. Now Javier Munoz and Alejandra Suarez faced another test -- separation.

"People will be leaving daily. Things are getting worse. They say help is here, but all the help is in the port. What you see is chaos everywhere," said Munoz, who was dropping off Suarez, his wife, and their children at the port in San Juan on Thursday.

They were among 1,700 people waiting to board a cruise ship that would take them to Florida.

The governor and other officials said conditions were getting better on the beleaguered island of 3.5 million people. They promised more gasoline in coming days, more cellphone service, security, medical care, restored water and electricity.

But the people boarding the cruise ship knew recovery will take time, and they couldn't afford to wait.

Many Puerto Ricans are accustomed to shuttling between home and the mainland U.S., but this journey felt different. They had lost homes, jobs, the very infrastructure underpinning their society. The wealthy were booking private planes out, but the airport was backlogged, even relief flights. This could be the beginning of a mass exodus, the kind that divides families for generations. And they had a ticket.

 

Some left more willingly than others.

Salesman Cesar Ayala got a call from his boss Wednesday offering to transfer him to Fort Lauderdale if he was willing to take his wife and two children on the cruise ship.

"Of course!" said Ayala, 32.

He worried about the safety of his daughters, 4-year-old Sarah and 1-year-old Lilly. His wife, Indira Viera, 38, a court reporter, can't work for the foreseeable future. The courts are all closed.

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