As Hurricane Irma barreled toward Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Chicagoans anxiously awaited word from family and friends on the island to make sure they were safe.
It’s an ordeal that many Puerto Ricans and their families have experienced before.
“They know what to do. They know the procedure,” Edras Garcia said as he barbecued in Humboldt Park on Wednesday afternoon with friends Evans Hernandez and John Carlos Cruz. The men all grew up on the island and became friends after moving to the West Side neighborhood, Chicago’s largest Puerto Rican enclave.
“When you live on an island, you learn to deal with these things,” Garcia said. His cellphone buzzed with updates from dozens of loved ones who live along the northern coast, which was expected to take the island’s brunt of the Category 5 storm.
Cruz said his sister called him from Juncos, a farming community about 28 miles southeast of San Juan.
“The lights are out, trees are down,” he said. “They’re in the basement. But they’re safe.”
Hernandez recalled hunkering down through Hurricane Wilma in 2005 while living near Clearwater Beach in Florida.
“It was 8 o’clock in the morning but all of the sudden it looked like 8 o’clock at night,” he said. “The wind just knocked over metal poles and bent them like toothpicks. It’s a scary thing to go through.”
Jose Rosardo said his father, sister and stepmother have weathered at least four hurricanes along the southern coast of the island over the last 15 years. He said the wait for word of safe passage doesn’t get easier.
“You have to remember it’s in God’s hands. I try not to think about it, but it’s constantly on your mind,” Rosardo said.
Outside her store, Yauco Food Liquors at Division and Rockwell, Elisandeli Arroyo scanned Facebook on her cellphone for word from relatives and the latest weather forecasts. Arroyo moved to Chicago in the 1970s, leaving behind 12 siblings and now dozens more nieces and nephews along the southern coast.
She called one of her sisters Wednesday evening, hours before the worst of the storm was expected to rake the northern coast.
“Just a lot of rain right now,” Arroyo said with a relieved sigh and a smile after hanging up with her sister. “I cry a lot but I pray they are OK.”
The storm’s impact was also on the minds of Cubs and White Sox players, as well as U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who said he was worried about “all my brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean.
“They never need a storm like this to hit them, but especially now, it is heartbreaking for Puerto Rico when the infrastructure and capacity to respond is already under duress due to the financial crisis,” he said.