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

Trees in the square of the southern town of Guayama, Puerto Rico, were knocked down by Hurricane Maria. Angel Valentin for NPR hide caption

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Angel Valentin for NPR

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.

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Marilee Dominguez (right) speaks on the phone with her sister-in-law in Costa Rica inside Derkes Pharmacy in Guayama, Puerto Rico. The owner of the store, Ana Rita Sued, (center) has made her phone with a satellite connection available to residents so they can contact relatives and friends outside of Puerto Rico. Angel Valentin for NPR hide caption

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Angel Valentin for NPR

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.

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Trees were washed down a river during Hurricane Maria in the southern town of Guayama. Angel Valentin for NPR hide caption

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Angel Valentin for NPR

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.

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