SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — American Airlines Flight 395 from O’Hare to the capitol of this hurricane-devastated island commonwealth was the least full flight I’ve flown in years. Had a whole row to myself.
The situation must have been quite different in the baggage compartment considering that every passenger seemed to be on his or her own personal hurricane relief mission.
“I’ve got over 115 pounds of food and supplies,” said Juan Mariani, who was wearing a Navy Veterans ballcap and a University of Illinois Dad sweatshirt.
Mariani, 66, and his nephew, Mark DeLeon, 46, both of Valparaiso, were on their way to Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, where Mariani’s elderly father lives.
Ponce, located on the southern coast, was hit hard by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, and his father’s situation remains precarious, Mariani told me.
“My father has dementia. They’re without power. Water has to be boiled. You can’t drink anything,” he explained.
DeLeon, an Army veteran and railroad conductor, said he and his uncle had signed up with the American Red Cross and were hoping to be deployed to Puerto Rico, but decided they just couldn’t wait.
DeLeon also was bringing school supplies donated by his children’s school in Indiana.
“I have 68 pounds of pencils, crayons, notebooks, coloring books and letters from the students,” he said.
Eliud Echevarria, 42, a machine operator from Wheeling, was making his second trip in two weeks to take food to his parents in Guayanilla, some 90 miles southwest of San Juan.
Just last week, he brought them three suitcases of food, but realized it wouldn’t be enough.
This time he was using his luggage allotment to bring two more suitcases of food — and a portable generator.
Echevarria said his parents’ home sustained little damage, but like most of the island’s residents, they were left without electrical power and the water is contaminated.
He brought the generator to power his parents’ electric stove so they can boil their water.
Both Mariani and Echevarria said their parents are retirees who returned to their island homeland after working and raising families in the Chicago area — Mariani’s father in an East Chicago steel mill and Echevarria’s as a South Side mechanic.
Echevarria would prefer his parents move to the mainland until the crisis is past.
“My mother wants to come. My father doesn’t. He’s worried someone will vandalize their home. She won’t leave him by himself. I understand where he’s coming from. He worked hard for his house,” Echevarria said.
Also on the flight was U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. The Illinois Democrat is making his second relief trip here, this time bringing donated funds that will be used to buy supplies from local merchants.
I asked Gutierrez to let me tag along so that I could see conditions on the island for myself and report back to you. He agreed.
In addition to his filled-to-maximum-weight checked luggage carrying supplies, Gutierrez brought an overflowing carry-on bag of random food requiring extra close inspection from the TSA.
His can of Spam was cleared for takeoff, but he was disappointed when told his jumbo size jar of peanut butter would be confiscated.
Gutierrez said the food he brought is mainly intended for relatives and friends who remained on the island after the hurricane. On his first visit, he brought most of his family members in Puerto Rico back to the U.S. mainland, fearing for their safety if conditions deteriorate further as he expects.
The passengers with whom I spoke agreed with Gutierrez’s assessment that the U.S. government needs to be doing more to help Puerto Rico.
“What would happen if this was Hawaii? Don’t you think the 7th Fleet would be out there? “ asked Mariani, the Navy vet.