Amid the ongoing outages wrought by Hurricane Fiona, New Yorkers with loved ones in Puerto Rico were reliving an eerily similar anxiety from a storm that tore through the island five years ago. But this time, many said they could contact their families within hours or days, rather than weeks.
Still, the anxiety raged in the hours or days since the storm struck down, with family members waiting for a text or phone call.
Sunilda Caraballo, 40, of Queens, didn’t hear from some family members for 12 hours, as they turned off their phones to preserve battery.
“And I knew they were getting pummeled with rain,” she said, suspecting they’d lose electricity, given the island’s notorious outages.
She added: “You have to go to bed and hope they’re OK.”
Fiona’s rainfall rivaled Hurricane Maria’s, though the winds were slower and the death toll was lower. The storm flooded homes that were still damaged from the previous hurricane and earthquakes, including those that were shoddily repaired afterward. And some 80% of islanders still don’t have electricity, and many also lack running water.
New York City dispatched an emergency management team to help assess damage and determine how the city could help, Mayor Eric Adams announced on Tuesday, suggesting a multi-agency contingent could follow in the coming days. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Monday that the state will send 100 Spanish-speaking troopers equipped with drones to survey the damage.
And Fiona later gained strength before it slammed the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands earlier this week, panicking New Yorkers like Caraballo with family across the Caribbean about the storm’s ongoing deluge.
She said her heart sank when she glanced at a map of the storm’s path on Friday afternoon and noticed that the hurricane was set to tear through the towns where her family lives in southern Puerto Rico, in Sabana Grande, and the eastern Dominican Republic, in Higuey and El Seibo.
Most of her family on both islands lack water and electricity, she said. The roof blew off one of the rooms in her aunt’s house and her brother’s children are finishing schoolwork by candlelight, she said.
Caraballo's 94-year-old grandmother, who has lived through Category 5 hurricanes and a swarm of earthquakes, was terrified.
“She said this felt a completely different magnitude because of the rain," Caraballo said.
Luckily, Caraballo said, she was able to hear back from her family within 12 hours after Fiona struck. Five years ago, after Hurricane Maria, two-and-a-half weeks passed before Caraballo made contact with her father. She missed his birthday, which he spent alone.
Other Puerto Rican New Yorkers echoed Caraballo’s story, saying they were able to reach their families quicker than in the aftermath of Maria. Afterward, many islanders bought generators, so they were able to charge their devices for future storms and regular outages. Madeline Rivera Marquez, 50, borrowed her aunt’s generator to charge her phone and contact her cousin and friend Tony, who has been calling her regularly since the storm struck down.
Five years ago, she was living in New Jersey and working in New York City – where much of her family immigrated in the 1950s. She said she still remembers the relief that punctured her ongoing anxiety when she received the first call from her brother that he was OK after Maria.
She later organized a group hug for Puerto Rico on the Upper West Side. Water now pours from her brother’s ceiling, she said, which is still in need of repairs since Maria.
“I understand both sides so well,” she said from the city of Caguas, where she has been caring for her mother with dementia for the last three years, and where water seeps into her and her son’s rooms.
While the devastation mounts, New York City nonprofits are also using lessons learned after Maria to get aid to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Fiona.
For example, Your Network Community Caring Advocate was formed in the wake of Maria to help ship local donations to the island. Sarah Vanga, who manages YNCCA’s emergency relief efforts, said the group is refraining from shipping food right now because storage areas may be flooded or powerless.
She added that they’re also holding off on water because cargo plane capacity is limited and bottles are hard to transport, especially in the rocky mountainous regions. YNCCA works with local Puerto Rican community groups to deliver aid, who said water was seeping into buildings.
“Whatever Maria didn’t break on the inside, Fiona came and broke on the inside,” added Sonia Velazquez, the group’s leader and community outreach specialist. “It’s like doubling up on a situation that was never addressed in the first place.”
This article was updated: It corrects the name of Sunilda Caraballo, clarifies where the storm had been projected to strike, and corrects what transpired after Hurricane Maria struck five years ago: Caraballo could not reach her father for two-and-a-half weeks.