On Sept. 15, Carmela Cortes said goodbye to her two children, Emma, 12, and Daniel, 11, who were off with family for a trip to Puerto Rico. She didn’t know then that her children wouldn’t be back in their Mays Landing home for three weeks, due to the strongest recorded hurricane to hit the U.S. territory, causing floods, destruction and ongoing power outages.
Emma and Daniel were traveling to Isabela, Puerto Rico, with their father’s family to attend their grandmother’s funeral. The family, already grieving, faced a new challenge when news outlets reported Category 5 Hurricane Maria was heading straight for the island.
“Their father called me on Monday and said, ‘I have bad news. Don’t panic, but the hurricane is going to hit us.’”
The news shocked Cortes, who said all she could do was cry. Her last phone contact with her family was Sept. 19, the day before Maria made landfall. The next phone call wasn’t until Sept. 22.
“It was days without knowing,” Cortes said. “It’s like you’re stuck. You don’t know what to do.”
The Cortes family in Puerto Rico stayed together and prepared for the storm. Isabel, in the northwest, is about about 75 miles from San Juan. Emma and Daniel said they watched from a window of their grandfather’s bedroom as heavy rain and wind knocked over trees, blew roofs off neighboring buildings and severed power lines.
“It was all white at one point — you couldn’t see anything,” said Emma, describing Maria’s lashing rains.
“I told my dad, ‘You know how when I was little, I was afraid of thunderstorms? Well, not anymore,’” said Daniel.
Though unable to make phone calls or text, the Cortes children took iPhone photos of the damage around them. Daniel has printed them out to take to school.
“My social studies teacher asked me if I would tell the class what we went through,” Daniel said, “so I’m going to write it all down.”
Being stranded away from home during a natural disaster didn’t seem to faze the Cortes children too much: Having family there made them feel safe, the siblings said. Much of their three weeks there was spent helping relatives clean up after the storm and traveling with their father, who was trying to get them back home as quickly as possible.
Back in Mays Landing, Cortes relied on a network of family and friends for support. “I was posting on Facebook and people were commenting that they were praying. I relied on my faith to get me through,” she said, fighting tears.
“My mother would tell me to just imagine they’re on vacation,” Cortes said. “She had a feeling everything was going to be OK.”
After several canceled flights and trips to San Juan, the Cortes children, with their father, uncle and aunt, were able to get an American Airlines flight into Philadelphia on Thursday.
Leaving Puerto Rico seemed bittersweet for the Corteses, who knew their loved ones were safe but still affected by the massive damage.
“We’re fortunate that we got to come back to a home that’s perfectly intact — we have electricity, water, food,” said Emma. “It took my dad seven hours to get get gas for his car, and now (on the mainland) we can freely go get gas and it takes two minutes.”
The Corteses still have extended family in Puerto Rico, who believe it will be months until power is restored. “My cousins said this year, for Christmas, they don’t want presents — they just want the power back,” said Emma.
After three weeks of uncertain communication, electricity and travel, Emma and Daniel were ready to return to their regular routine, even getting to school at St. Joseph’s Regional School on Friday.
“I saw my friends when I got to school, and they cried and hugged me and told me how much they miss me,” said Emma.
Cortes said St. Joseph’s has offered to help put together a benefit for Puerto Rico. With firsthand experience, Emma and Daniel said the people of Puerto Rico need generators, fresh water and monetary donations.
The family requested donations to the American Red Cross at redcross.org.