Puerto Rico’s crisis inspires stay-at-home mom to fly out the sick and injured

PONCE, Puerto Rico — The figure of a young woman silhouetted by the airplane window behind her hunched over to the side, murmuring in Spanish, “Oh, my baby. My little baby.” She pulled back a tiny pink blanket that covered a little girl from head to toe. Tiny curled feet came into view. Machines beeped in the background.

The mother pulled out two booties a shade darker than the blanket, and carefully slipped them on her daughter. She gripped the hand that was not bound by tubes: “There, my baby,” she said. “All better.”

A few rows down sat a frail man with his niece, who was restless, talking a mile a minute with her hands reaching towards the sky like the curled ringlets that crowned her head. “Relax,” the man told her, his booming voice emanating from his thin frame. The girl paused, and took to staring out of the airplane window instead.

For most of the plane ride, however, there was quiet. The rumble of the engines became a soothing lull, and depending on which section of the airplane, hushed conversation, the chatter of children or sniffling could be heard. Hours earlier, when the same flight left from Miami Opa-Locka Executive Airport to the Mercedita Airport in Puerto Rico, the sound of the engines were there as well — but mixed with the lively Spanish of 30 medical personnel and four volunteers, all organized by the nonprofit Warrior Angels Rescue, discussing what they would do once they landed in the town of Ponce.

But in the exciting air, there lingered a bit of tense silence, from one woman seated close to the cockpit. As the coast of Puerto Rico slowly came into view, she trembled. “I have to pull myself together,” she muttered. “But that,” she said shaking her head, eyes looking down below, “that doesn’t look right.”

She paused. “It looks like someone took our island, and shook it violently.”

Valerie Edmondson Bolaños was born in the town of Isabella, and she named her 3-year old daughter after the city. She was flying to Puerto Rico for the first time since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, but the organization she recently founded, Warrior Angels Rescue, had raised tens of thousands of dollars online to charter private planes to evacuate medically ill people from the ravaged island. She has successfully relocated over 150 patients and passengers so far. A stay-at-home mom from Santa Monica, Calif., this will be her first time flying on one of the dozens of planes she has chartered, and her first time back in Puerto Rico in a year.

Slideshow: Puerto Rico 1 month after Hurricane Maria >>>

It all started when she had lost contact with her cousin after Hurricane Maria. “We went 31 hours without communication after the storm hit.” As Maria was passing over the island, Bolaños herself was dealing with a family crisis in Los Angeles: Her sister Vivian was in critical condition at the hospital after suffering life-threatening complications from childbirth. “At that moment, I really did think my sister was going to die.”

“I had to get them out of there. But every commercial flight I booked kept falling through. Flight after flight after flight — it was pointless, meaningless,” Bolaños said. She looked into chartering a boat, but a man who owned a rental boat company said it would be practically impossible to dock a boat near the town where her family lived. She recalled the man asking, “‘Why don’t you look into chartering a plane instead?’”

Bolaños reached out to her friends, and one put her in contact with the charter company her workplace used for business trips. The first flight she chartered was a six-seater that would have cost $5,000 a seat. “I already paid for the whole plane, and four of those seats would be filled by my aunt, cousin and her two boys,” she said. The two empty seats, however, weighed on her mind. “Hearing how bad things were on the island, I just couldn’t let the plane leave knowing there were two seats we could’ve given to people in need.” She was able to find a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy who needed medical attention and her young son to fill those seats back to the mainland.

Now, with a $250,000 grant from the Hispanic Federation, Bolaños found herself organizing her volunteers with Mindo Futures, a Latin American medical aid group, on her biggest trip yet to provide medical assistance to — and rescue hurricane evacuees from — Puerto Rico. She disappeared into the airport hangar, reappeared, weaved among a group of volunteers back to the pilot, pulled out her phone and checked her screen, dialing numbers and picking up calls. A bright Florida sun beat down on the airport.

Hours later, in the air, Bolaños choked up when she saw the damage of Hurricane Maria from the window. “You just have to think,” she said, as she motioned to the destruction below, “that the people who lived in those houses — they’re empty now, but the people who lived in those houses were inside when those roofs came off and when the water came through and filled it up. And we don’t know whether those people got out, whether they stayed inside, or whether they stayed inside and didn’t survive.”

When the flight landed, the doctors broke up into groups and awaited transport to their hard-to-reach destinations. Bolaños, meanwhile, had trouble locating hospital patients she was told were already inside Mercedita Airport. “There are always challenges to it,” she said of coordinating these missions. “Communication is spotty and unreliable.” She decided to send her friend Joaquin to see if he could find anyone in Ponce who would be willing to take some of the empty seats in the plane. That effort, however, was futile, because although Ponce did suffer damage and cellphone service, power and water were hard to come by, residents were clear: They had no plans to leave. “This is all they know, and they are still traumatized from it, so they want to be home, even though home doesn’t even exist anymore.”

In Puerto Rico, just 20 percent of the population has had their electric power restored. The government said most of the island will regain electricity by the end of the year, but some residents don’t find that estimate likely. “I don’t think it’ll come back until January or February,” predicted Juan Carlos Cruz, a passenger on the plane. Cruz went on to say that things are very slow in Puerto Rico: “The news reported [on] … rations to the island that never arrived to their destinations because they were stolen. It’s a very sad situation.” As food prices rise and water, electricity, medicine and reliable communication methods become more difficult to acquire, Puerto Ricans are faced with the tough decision on relocating to the U.S. mainland, and whether they should do so permanently.

Slideshow: In the wake of Maria: Aerial views of devastation in Puerto Rico >>>

Eventually Bolaños was able to locate the patients and their families waiting in the airport, and in three hours, the 64-seater was on its way back to Miami with the medically ill, the distraught, the pensive and the scared — but most of all, the silent.

The 48 people on board took the one chance they could to leave Puerto Rico. Some were coming to the mainland for medical attention that their local hospitals, crippled without electricity, could not give. Others were hoping to stay with family members for a while. A few were ready to start their lives anew. The mother of a little girl connected to a respiratory machine said, “[Here] she’ll have a better quality of life. In Puerto Rico, she won’t.”

Bolaños saw the passengers come out of the plane — some crying and hugging their family members on the tarmac, and others leaving in stretchers being wheeled to waiting ambulances.

She said one thing remained clear: “I will keep doing this until the need no longer exists.”


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