Hurricane Maria: Orlando families find helping Puerto Rico isn’t simple



Residents of Loiza, Puerto Rico, such as Monica Pisarro, are anticipating a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. The hurricane is expected to pass over the island on Wednesday. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Rafael Juliá Jr. worried about his aging father, battling cancer and relying on a machine to breathe.

Juliá understood his two challenges: First, he must find an affordable plane ticket for his father to escape. Perhaps even more difficult, Juliá must also convince the 78-year-old, stubborn and resolute, to get on a plane and leave the island where he has always lived.

Many Puerto Ricans living in the Orlando area have found their recent days filled with worry as they try to reconnect with family members back home after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island.


But it’s difficult.

Inside San Juan’s major airport, passengers are stranded and only about a dozen flights are leaving a day. Some U.S. airline carriers advertised ticket prices that cost well beyond $1,000 and many, including Juliá, expressed outrage.

“I cannot believe how a company can do that to people who are suffering,” Juliá said Monday evening. “I have no words in English to express how angry I am.”

Pop singer Ricky Martin posted a photo of American Airlines prices topped at $1,501 and $2,249 for round-trip flight from San Juan to Miami, which is typically a three-hour flight.

“THIS IS NOT RIGHT,” Martin wrote Monday on social media in all capital letters. “WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS.”

But further into October, American Airlines prices dipped down. For instance, a round-trip ticket to Orlando from Puerto Rico on Oct. 7 was advertised at $309, as of 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The price jumps for the earlier flights didn’t surprise George Hobica, who founded the flight booking site


“They always are going to have higher fares closer to travel,” Hobica said, adding the flights prices seemed reasonable on the lower-cost airlines with later travel dates.

When reached for comment on the high prices, an American Airlines spokesman said the company is only capping one-way, nonstop flights to and from Puerto Rico.

The $99 cap covers main cabin seats and $199 for premium cabin seats through Oct. 8, according to American Airlines.

JetBlue Airways capped prices for direct flights in and out of Puerto Rico to the mainland for $135 through Oct. 7, according to the company.

Then a $199 cap will continue for direct flights in and out of Puerto Rico to the United States from Oct. 8 to Nov. 15, JetBlue said.

Regularly waking up in the middle of the night, Jeannette Rivera-Lyles couldn’t stop thinking about her 72-year-old mother, whose health scares come unexpectedly and often. Her ailments include diabetes, a surgically repaired back and high blood pressure.

Her mother is safe for the moment, her house undamaged by the hurricanes, there is food to eat.

But if something happens, Rivera-Lyles wants her mother in Orlando with her and easier access to medical care.

The plane tickets are so high to leave Puerto Rico in the immediate days, Rivera-Lyles can’t afford them on a whim.

“I don’t have a choice. I have to wait,” said Rivera-Lyles, executive director of a public relations firm and a former Orlando Sentinel reporter from 2005 to 2011, on Monday evening as she looks to buy a later flight for her parents.

She is stressed, she said, “But I think every Puerto Rican in this town is.”

Meanwhile, Juliá and his three siblings keep persuading their father to leave Puerto Rico to no avail.

His father, Rafael Juliá Sr., is a tough man. He grew up from humble beginnings to become a marketing director at a pharmaceutical company without a formal college education. He already battled cancer once.

And now the elder Juliá refuses to leave because he fears becoming a burden for his adult children in the mainland even though it takes hours to find diesel gas to power the generator running his oxygen machine since the electricity is out.

He is not the kind to waver on his stances.

“When he takes a position, that’s his final position,” his son said.

The younger Juliá feels desperate. His final idea is to call his father’s doctor, a friend, to ask him to make one last-ditch plea to leave the island.

“This is not looking good,” Juliá said Tuesday morning.


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