SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Jennilise Rivera boarded an airplane Oct. 24, the first flight of the 22-year-old’s life.
Her destination was the United States, also a first.
Once in the air, she looked out the passenger window to the ground below. It was the first time she had seen the devastation Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico, the only place she had known as home up to that point.
She had witnessed the damaging forces of the Category 4 hurricane at her grandparent’s house, which is next to her own house in Salinas, a town in the southeast part of Puerto Rico near the Bay of Rincon with a population of about 30,000. But what she saw from the air was different. The wreckage seen from above was much greater than she had experienced on the ground.
“It was a horrible disaster. It was completely horrible, horrible because all the trees were down, the post lamps were down,” she said Nov. 1 with the help of her cousin and translator, Staff Sgt. Christian Ortiz-Morales of the 364th Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base. “Pieces of the (metal) roof … were laying everywhere.”
Rivera had lost her home and most of its contents. The only possessions she had was a suitcase and clothes that her mother had gathered.
“It’s not the same Puerto Rico as before,” she said.
Ortiz-Morales, who is also from Salinas, said the majority of houses there are made of wood and have metal roofs.
Water, food and electricity was scarce since Maria hit on Sept. 20. Rainwater was used to bathe to preserve what little drinking water they had. Candles were used to lighten the dark of night. They had to make do with what they had.
Maria was Rivera’s first tropical cyclone.
“It’s the first one, the worst one,” she said, “and I never want to see another one.”
Rivera and her children – Ethan, 3, and Jaeliz, 2 – were able to evacuate the U.S. territory and seek refuge at Ortiz-Morales’s home in Wichita Falls. How they were able to get out is a story of people knowing people, resources, quick decisions and, perhaps, a little divine intervention.
Francisco Melendez, who works security, was able to convince a wealthy businessman in Dallas to send his private jet full of relief supplies to Puerto Rico on Oct. 24. While there, he contacted Kim Nottingham through Facebook and asked if there was anyone he could get off the storm-ravaged island. Melendez and Nottingham went to high school together at Center High School in Antelope, Calif.
Nottingham, unit program coordinator for the 364th TRS, said she told her former classmate that there was someone in her squadron who had family there. She thought immediately of Ortiz-Morales and got in touch with him, who, in turn, called his family in Puerto Rico.
“He’s one of those guys who wants to do,” she said, adding that he took boats to the Houston area to aid in recovery efforts. “He’s a difference maker.”
Ortiz-Morales said he made the phone call about 10 a.m. to see who among his family was interested in evacuating. The cousin’s grandparents were asked, but they declined to leave the place they had grown up and the house they had lived in most of their lives. Other family members also chose to stay, but Rivera’s mother, Jennymar Ortiz, convinced her to accept the opportunity.
That put in motion a series of nerve-racking events for the mother and her children to reach Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in San Juan before its 3:30 p.m. scheduled takeoff.
The staff sergeant said he called Nottingham to inform her of who was going to be evacuated and other essential information to get them on the plane.
“It was crazy because the moment her mom told her she was with her mom in her mom’s workplace and she had to drive to our grandparent’s house, which is like 15 minutes away,” Ortiz-Morales interpreted. “She got stuck trying to get there as well. Once she got to the house, she threw everything in the suitcase and took off, but she didn’t think she was going to make it.”
A typical drive to San Juan from Salinas takes about 50 minutes, Ortiz-Morales said, but a little more than a month after Maria hit, it still took about three hours because of road conditions. Rivera and her children were supposed to be at the airport by 1 p.m. She didn’t make it there until 3:30 p.m.
The flight was delayed for another passenger, a patient who was being care-flighted to the airport, Ortiz-Morales said.
Was it divine intervention that kept the plane on the ground, giving Rivera, Ethan and Jaeliz the much-needed time to get to Luis Muñoz Marin International?
“Yes,” Rivera said. “Definitely.”
Rivera said it was hard to make the decision to leave family behind, but the opportunity to come to the states where Ethan, a special-needs child, could get better care was something she couldn’t pass up.
The plane carrying several evacuees touched down at Dallas Love Field at about 8:45 p.m. on Oct. 24. Rivera’s life had already gotten better.
Ortiz-Morales was waiting for his cousin and her children, ready to begin the final two hours of their journey that took them from devastation to a new beginning.
“While she was in the car, every little thing she would see surprised her and amazed her,” he said. “Even the laundromat (she) was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ A car dealership, ‘Look how big it is.’ Everything was amazing to her.”
Rivera said she was nervous at first because she was in a new place and doesn’t speak English. She said she misses family, but everything she needs is available here. She talks to her mother by phone daily, but contact with her grandparents has been limited because of connectivity issues.
She said she isn’t sure if the move will be permanent or if they will move back to Puerto Rico. That, she said, depends on how well Ethan responds to the care he will receive.
Nottingham said the 364th TRS has been very responsive to calls to help Rivera and her family as well as Ortiz-Morales and his family. She said she bought Ethan and Jaeliz coats for the upcoming winter blast.
“It’s amazing to see people donate clothes,” she said. “It blows me away when people come together.”
Ortiz-Morales said about 80 percent of the island remains without power; 65 percent is still without water.