'We're Alive': Guayama Residents Reach Family On Town's One Working Phone

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on September 30, 2017 8:24 am

Communication is one of the most urgent needs in Puerto Rico. Government officials must connect with each other to coordinate recovery efforts, and residents want to reach out to loved ones. Three-quarters of the island has no cell phone signal. Maria's fearsome winds knocked out all but about 100 of the island's 1,600 cell towers.

But the town of Guayama found a way to stay in touch.

Like most of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities, there is no cell service or power in Guayama. Since Maria hit just over a week ago, people have been desperate to let family know they're okay. The historic city on the southern coast is a little over an hour's drive from San Juan.

A retired banker named Jose Bauzá sent this message to his daughter in Detroit via a reporter.

"Hello, Margara, this is Papi. I hope you're okay. We spoke or texted few minutes before Maria struck us here in Guayama. Ever since it's been hell here."

There is one working phone in Guayama. It's inside the Derkes Pharmacy, whose owner is Ana Sued. The morning after the tempest left, Sued made a happy discovery.

The pharmacy has a satellite to transmit prescriptions "and when we didn't have any telephone or any system, we thought about the satellite to see if it's still working," Sued said. "And boom, it worked." She was able to patch her cellphone into the satellite link. "We were lucky to connect people with their families."

So the pharmacy has become Guayama's link to the outside world. Her customers line up for free phone calls beside shelves full of cold medications and coconut candy and disposable diapers. It's one of the countless ways Puerto Ricans are helping each other during this epic catastrophe.

Mariola Dominguez, an administrator at a local high school, called her sister-in-law in Costa Rica.

"They're all worried if we have food, are we doing fine?" she says.

The answer in Guayama — as it is in most of Puerto Rico — is that people are running out of food and drinking water, and the gas lines are maddening.

This town was spared widespread destruction that happened elsewhere on the island. But without communication, rumors are running wild on social media—of coffins popping out of the ground and dead animals and gangs of looters. Here, the worst damage appears to be to the graceful old shade trees in the central plaza that Maria split apart.

Sued says she hears the same messages over and over.

"We're okay, everybody is okay, we're alive, not much happened. As days went by, people are like, try to get me a plane ticket, I need to get out. I need to get out," she says.

One collateral effect of no internet or cellphones is that kids have to learn how to play again. The same can be said of the regions in Texas and Florida hit by recent hurricanes.

Puerto Rico is thoroughly immersed in U.S. consumer culture and the internet extended to every corner of the island.

"These kids were born with the internet, so they don't know and they're learning back to basics," Sued says.

The pharmacist says she's seen more children riding bicycles. More children playing outside — including her own 10-year-old twins, Ana Beatriz and Ana Gabriela. How have they been passing the time?

"Play board games," they giggle, "play in my dollhouse with the dolls. And play hide and seek."

Their mother is quite certain they will return to their cellphones and computers as soon as wireless communications return to Guayama — whenever that is.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, one of the most urgent needs is still communication. Three quarters of the island still has no cellphone signal. Hurricane Maria knocked out all but 100 of Puerto Rico's 1,600 cell towers. Now government officials are struggling to connect with each other to coordinate the recovery, and people are struggling to reach out to their friends and relatives. NPR's John Burnett has the story of one town that found a way to stay in touch.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Like most of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities, there's no cell service or power in Guayama. Since Maria hit nine days ago, people have been desperate to let family know they're OK. The historic city on the southern coast is a little over an hour's drive from San Juan. A retired banker named Jose Bauza sent this message to his daughter in Detroit via a reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE BAUZA: Hello, Margara. This is Papi. I hope you're OK. I mean we spoke or texted a few minutes before the - Maria struck us here in Guayama. And ever since, it's been hell here.

BURNETT: There's one working phone in Guayama. It's inside the Derkes pharmacy, whose owner is Ana Sued. The morning after the tempest left, Sued made a happy discovery.

ANA SUED: We have a satellite to transmit our prescriptions. And when we didn't have any telephone or any system, we thought about the satellite. Let's see if it's still working. And boom, it worked. And we were lucky to be able to connect people with their families.

BURNETT: And so the pharmacy has become Guayama's link to the outside world. Her customers line up for free phone calls beside shelves full of cold medication and coconut candy and disposable diapers. It's one of the countless ways Puerto Ricans are helping each other during this epic catastrophe.

MARIOLA DOMINGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish.)

BURNETT: Mariola Dominguez is an administrator at a local high school. She was calling her sister in Costa Rica.

DOMINGUEZ: They're all worried - if we have food, if we are doing fine.

BURNETT: The answer in Guayama, as it is in most of Puerto Rico, is that people are running out of food and drinking water, and the gas lines are maddening. This town was spared widespread destruction that happened elsewhere on the island. But without communication, rumors are running wild on social media of coffins popping out of the ground and dead animals everywhere and gangs of looters. Here, the worst damage appears to be the graceful, old shade trees of the central plaza that Maria split apart. Pharmacist Ana Sued says she hears the same messages from callers over and over.

SUED: We're OK. Everybody's OK. We're alive. Not much happened, you know? As the days went by, people are like, try to get me a plane ticket. I need to get out. I need to get out.

BURNETT: A collateral effect of no Internet or cellphones - and the same can be said of the regions in Texas and Florida hit by recent hurricanes - is that kids have to learn how to play again. Puerto Rico is thoroughly immersed in U.S. consumer culture. The Internet extends to every corner of this island.

SUED: These kids were born with the Internet, so they don't know these other things. And they're learning back to basics.

BURNETT: The pharmacist says she's seen more children riding bicycles, more children playing outside, including her own 10-year-old twins, Ana Beatriz and Ana Gabriela. How have the girls been passing the time?

ANA GABRIELA: Play board games, play my dollhouse with the dolls and play hide-and-seek.

BURNETT: Their mother is quite certain they'll return to their cell phones and computers as soon as wireless communications return to Guayama, whenever that is. John Burnett, NPR News, San Juan.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE SCHOLARS' "JOE METRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.