Relatives worry as flights out of Puerto Rico are few and far between

Three canceled commercial flights out of Puerto Rico were three too many for Victor Martinez.

So with help from Spanish-language radio broadcasting counterparts, Martinez clinched a “Hail Mary” for his mother-in-law and others trying to leave the island devastated by Hurricane Maria: a private plane.

“It’s the only way of getting them out,” said Martinez, president and owner of La Mega radio station in Allentown. “It doesn’t seem there’s going to be any flights out of Puerto Rico [until early October], and things are getting really bad.”

A week after the Category 4 storm struck, Martinez and others with ties to Puerto Rico are growing increasingly worried about family and friends who are without electricity and have little access to fresh food and water.

Martinez acknowledged his family was lucky to get out. Others will rely on commercial airlines’ ability to get in and out of Puerto Rican airports, which are operating at reduced capacity.

All of the flights to and from Newark Internatinal Airport and Luis Munoz Marín International Airport in San Juan were canceled Monday and Tuesday. Half of the flights from Newark to San Juan scheduled for Wednesday were canceled as of Tuesday afternoon, as was one of the four incoming flights.

Lehigh Valley International Airport doesn’t have direct flights to Puerto Rico, spokesman Colin Riccobon said. No charter flights have taken trips to the island.

Commercial flights to the island might not be available until mid-October, said Mary Colon, board president of Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley. A relative of hers had purchased tickets to the island months ago, but the scheduled late-September flight was canceled.

Meanwhile, federal aid remains a contentious point among the Puerto Rican community, largely on social media, Martinez said.

He pointed to a tweet by singing star Marc Anthony, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican immigrants, t calling for President Trump to stop tweeting about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and “do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico” as their inspiration.

“We don’t think it’s a coincidence that Marc Anthony put out that tweet, everyone started attacking [Trump] within the Puerto Rican community and all of a sudden everything is in high gear,” he said.

FEMA has sent more than 500 responders to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to help recovery efforts, according to a Tuesday statement. They are searching for people, providing meals and will deliver more than 100 satellite phones.

But Trump’s earlier reference to Puerto Rico’s financial status in tweets about Hurricane Maria landed poorly with Marilisa Jimenez García, an assistant professor at Lehigh University teaching courses on Latino literature and culture. She said his mention of the island’s debt was uncalled for in light of its need.

“Let’s really think about getting people back on their feet, literally,” Jimenez said. “How can you bring up a situation like the debt at this moment? It doesn’t seem humane.”

Jimenez said the Jones Act, which established Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens, is partly to blame for what she said was a dampened response to the storm. It requires goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by vessels owned and operated by Americans and built in the U.S.

“It’s also a major hindrance in terms of how it isolates Puerto Rico in times like this, for supplies, and makes it totally dependent on the federal government for aid,” Jimenez said. “If that aid is delayed, you have a really dire situation.”

U.S Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York, requested on Monday that Jones Act shipping requirements be loosened.

Trump’s administration indicated Tuesday it would not temporarily waive the act, according to the Associated Press. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told an AP reporter U.S. vessels have enough capacity to move goods to the island.

The department waived the Jones Act restrictions for refined petroleum products during Harvey and Irma.

Velazquez also requested FEMA not be required to enter into traditional cost-sharing agreements with Puerto Rico for recovery programs because the island’s government is already at a financial “breaking point.” Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy early this year because of bond and pension debt.

Trump seemingly agreed with that request — he issued a news release stating he would increase federal funding for debris removal and other emergency measures. He also announced plans to visit the island next week.

cthompson@mcall.com

Twitter @thompsoncarolk

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