Giovanni Brignoni hasn't heard from his father in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island this week, but that hasn't stopped the former radio host from working helicopter rescue missions to save stranded Puerto Ricans and get information to them from worried family members.
Brignoni has been updating his friends and family on Facebook with the latest news from the island, which lost power and much of its infrastructure during the deadly storm. He was already flying rescue missions with Fuerzas Unidas de Rapida Acción, a rapid action police force, when he posted his first live video Friday, heartening Puerto Ricans on the mainland thirsting for information. In the video, Brignoni said he helped rescue 60 people from the devastation, before pausing and becoming emotional, adding that while he was saving others he had still not heard from his own father.
"I think Giovanni is doing an amazing job, not just rescuing people but using social media to share information about the places he’s visiting," said Charo Henriquez-Scaia, a journalist at the New York Times and a Facebook friend of Brignoni. "Right now, as people outside Puerto Rico are desperately seeking information and contact with their loved ones, it’s truly heroic of him to take the time to do this."
As Hurricane Maria left the island shellshocked, without power, and with 95% of the island’s cellular sites out of service, Puerto Ricans have tried to steel themselves against the reality that food, water, gasoline, and fuel for generators will be hard to come by. But it is the inability to reach family members on the island and the mainland that has left them in despair.
"This is Katrina," said Andres Lopez, a Democratic donor and lawyer, noting that the aftermath will be as devastating in terms of force and damage for the 3.5 million US citizens on the island as it was after the hurricane that roiled New Orleans in 2005. Lopez said that while he lives in San Juan's Miramar neighborhood, an area that hasn't completely lost cell service, the same cannot be said for so many residents.
"Nobody could find their relatives — but more than food and water, what people craved the most was for that little rectangle to work," he said.
The communication issue extended to the government of Puerto Rico, where mayors of local municipalities could not reach the governor, Ricardo Rosselló. That prompted Luis A. Miranda, Jr., father of Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda, to call Lopez to help connect the mayors with the governor.
"The main heads of municipal government were incommunicado," Lopez said.
The Puerto Rican government has been inundated with 110,000 calls since Wednesday, a spokesman said, passing along messages from worried family members on the mainland to relatives unreachable on the island.
Carlos Mercader, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, has himself not heard from his family on the western part of the island, where communications were hit particularly hard, but helped organize the call center along with volunteers.
Mercader said that after the hurricane, the governor began coordinating with FEMA to assess the damage, which they describe as "total devastation," and created a plan to reestablish communications in the coming days, with improvements already being felt on Saturday, according to those on the island.
"You have to take into consideration that 85% of power lines are down," Mercader said of the electrical grid, which will take months to restore. "This is a massive crisis that Puerto Rico is going through."
But the story of Puerto Rico is, as always, also a story of relatives on the mainland, who have been concerned by the lack of communication and information coming out of the island. The last time Erik Duboué spoke with his fiancé’s parents, who live in Puerto Rico, was Tuesday night as they prepared to board up their windows to brace for the coming hurricane.
By Saturday evening, days after Hurricane Maria pelted the island, they had yet to hear from them. The couple have had trouble getting through hotlines and groups that are helping people get in touch with loved ones.
“Not having contact with them is stressful,” Duboué, 35, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s also frustrating for us because we don’t know when we might be able to fly over there to check on them.”
Others on the mainland struggling to reach friends and family on the island since Maria hit took to social media to vent their anguish and frustration.
Jaylyn Jimenez, 18, said her family in the US had only been able to reach one part of her family on Friday after an uncle drove an hour from Arecibo to Bayamón because he heard there was cell service there.
The call was brief but everyone was okay, Jimenez said.
“We kept calling and it went straight to voicemail, texts weren’t going through either,” Jimenez told BuzzFeed News. “Still, we have family in Ponce and we have no idea what’s going on with them.”
Jimenez said not everyone in Puerto Rico has access to a vehicle and is able to drive an hour away to get cell service.
“Not being able to contact family really has become the biggest issue for people in the US,” Jimenez said. “Puerto Ricans are very passionate about family and Puerto Rico in general so even if you know your family is safe seeing the land you love destroyed is a very horrible and scary feeling.”
Brignoni, who is working 12- to 16-hour shifts for the rescue operation, said that he lacked water to shave and only had enough food at home for two days. But despite the difficult conditions he has maintained a positive message for those watching, one echoed by other Puerto Ricans on the island, who hope they have made it through the worst of it.
"The US cavalry is coming," Brignoni said in the video, turning the camera to show aircraft landing with supplies. "So you can see, they’re coming. The cavalry is coming. Little by little."
Adolfo Flores is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He focuses on immigration.
Contact Adolfo Flores at email@example.com.
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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