LUMBERTON — A military veteran and a law enforcement officer, Jose Hernandez doesn’t scare easily, but one day in Puerto Rico as Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the island did just that.
A Lumberton resident, Hernandez flew to Puerto Rico as others were leaving ahead of the storm. His 73-year-old mother, who lives in Humacao in the southeastern part of the island, called as Maria’s landing on the island was a certainty.
The call came on Sunday and the hurricane hit on Wednesday, Sept. 20. After a week on the island, which still has no power or water, and food, fuel, money and security are questionable, Hernandez was home. He has a story to tell and mixed feelings about leaving his mother, a widow who lives alone, behind.
“My mother is a retired cop, a tough lady,” Hernandez said. “She called on Sunday, and to hear the fear in her voice scared me.”
At the time, Jose and his wife, Julie, were watching a different hurricane, and the news of then-Cat 5 Maria was a wake-up call.
“I didn’t feel right about leaving my mother there,” Jose said. “To hear the fear in her voice was a first for me. I had to go.”
Hernandez flew out of Raleigh-Durham Airport on Monday evening, changed planes in New York and arrived in San Juan in the early hours Tuesday morning. The man at the car rental agency said to take his pick of vehicles, nobody was coming into to Puerto Rico, except Jose.
“When I got to my mom’s house, she was crying and said I was crazy to come,” Hernandez said.
At home in Lumberton, Julie was trying to keep the lines of communication open.
“He called at 4 a.m. on Wednesday (as the hurricane hit the island),” Julie said. “That was the last time I talked to him for a long time.”
Jose and his mother were hunkered down in a sturdy cinderblock and cement house. They faced sustained winds of 155 mph.
“The sound was other worldly, it just howled,” he said. “She was screaming and crying, and I sent her to her bedroom, which is in the middle of the house with no windows.”
Hernandez tied doors closed and barricaded windows as water poured into the house
“Everybody was praying,” he said.
When the hurricane passed, they emerged to a different Puerto Rico.
“The wind blew all the leaves off the trees,” he said. Puerto Rico is very green, but the whole island was white and gray.
“There was no power, a trickle of water, no communication, no ATMs and no government,” he said. “There were gunshots at night, and I didn’t sleep because I kept checking the car to make sure someone was not siphoning the gas.”
Fuel was an extreme problem for the island of 3.4 million people. Several people died in a hospital because thieves stole fuel from its generator. Badly needed truck drivers and police could not get to work because they had no gasoline.
“We had a trickle of water for two days,” Hernandez said. “Then, thieves stole the fuel from the generator.”
At home, Julie was frantic and without contact other than an occasional one-word text message.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico,” Julie said. “It really brings it home to you when you see it on TV, and you know your husband is there.”
Help came in the form of WPDE-TV. A friend contacted the news station, and it sent a reporter for a story. But the WPDE newsroom did not let it go — and got on the phone.
“I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but credit to WPDE,” Julie said. “They contacted American Airlines through their media relations channel and gave me a contact number.”
Twenty minutes later, Julie had Jose booked on a flight home. Jose said the San Juan airport was crowded with people trying to leave the island, and there was no air conditioning.
“I got into the TSA line, and it stretched through the terminal, outside and back in,” Jose said. “It was over 100 degrees, and everybody in that line was soaked through their clothes.”
Late Wednesday, a week after his ordeal began, Julie picked up Jose at the Raleigh-Durham Airport. There was a lot to talk about.
Hernandez grew up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, and said the military got him off the streets and probably saved his life. He got a high school degree as he watched the Berlin Wall come down in 1989.
A visit with relatives in North Carolina, and he’s been here ever since working in gang investigations in Robeson and Hoke counties. His military training paid off as he loaded up supplies, including a water purification system, to take to Puerto Rico.
Despite the training and toughness, he was scared and amazed at the devastation.
“You wouldn’t recognize Puerto Rico if you have ever seen it,” he said. “The military needs to step in. They are the only group with the ability to get relief to people, some live up in the mountains.”
Although some are saying the federal government was slow to take action, Hernandez isn’t pointing figured. He says the island is without infrastructure to deal with disaster, and its governor is powerless to help.
Others will sort out who did what, while Hernandez continues to worry about his mother. He left her well supplied and reasonably safe.
“My mom has some health issues, and it’s time for her to go,” Hernandez said. “I told her to forget about the furniture and bring the family pictures.”
The family, almost all in the U.S., have worked out a plan for a happy ending, but Hernandez worries.
“I felt guilty yesterday eating a hamburger,” he said. “I’m not sure when my mom will get a hot meal.
“Half my heart is here with my family and the other half is in Puerto Rico with my mom.”
As for Julie: “I’m not letting him go anywhere right now.”
Scott Bigelow can be reached by calling 910-416-5649.