Getting home: How one Ole Miss family weathered the storm

Posted on Oct 20 2017 - 8:02am by Slade Rand
The coquis stopped chirping when Hurricane Maria hit. On a typical night, the nickel-sized frogs dominate the island air with their high-pitched call, reminiscent of cicadas in the Mississippi summer. For the past month, nothing has been typical in Puerto Rico, and the coquis have been quiet.
“There’s something missing,” Gaby Altieri said. “I know that was kind of a punch in the heart right there.”

Gaby Altieri. Photo by Baylee Mozjesik

Altieri is a junior political science major from Brandon. Born in Memphis and raised in Mississippi, she’s a Southerner with a hearty Puerto Rican bloodline. Her parents, Frank Altieri and Wendy Rosas-Altieri, grew up 10 minutes apart on the western side of the island and moved stateside 26 years ago on their wedding day. When Maria began swamping the island, Rosas-Altieri and her sister, Mayra Rosas-Rexroade, were preparing to fly back to the states after visiting a relative in the hospital.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds. President Donald Trump called the storm a “monster” and the National Weather Service Miami warned that areas could be “uninhabitable” for months. Now, weeks after the storm hit, more than a third of the island still lacks drinking water, and 3 million American citizens’ power remains off.
Altieri said her family’s house where her mom and aunt were staying still does not have lights or running water. Banks, gas stations and grocery stores are still experiencing hourslong lines, and many roads are still closed.
“I cried the other day pumping gas, because my aunt had to make an eight-hour line to get gas to make it to the airport,” Altieri said.
Maria struck the coast the day before Altieri’s mom and aunt were scheduled to fly back to the states. Not only did the storm devastate their travel plans, but it also meant the sisters had no way of talking to their family overseas. It was a week before Altieri first heard her mother’s voice again.
“I said ‘Gaby, I’m calling you because I want you to hear my voice and know that I am OK,’” Rosas-Altieri said.
With no cell service or internet access, Rosas-Altieri relied on a stranger’s kindness to keep in touch with Gaby. She said a neighbor named Carlos Vasquez allowed her to use his satellite phone and refused to accept cash payment for the phone’s service charges.
“Without him, my husband would have not known that I was OK,” Rosas-Altieri said. “This man has helped so many people.”
The Rosas sisters spent the candlelit week in their deceased mother’s house in Hormigueros, less than a 15-minute drive from the coastline. Rosas-Altieri said nearly her entire family lives in Hormigueros, and many of her cousins even live on the same street.
“All the houses around me are my aunts that are left now,” she said. “The neighbors that I have are the neighbors from all my life when I was growing up.”
The familial love surrounding Rosas-Altieri after the storm was not solely a product of her proximity to cousins but also of her neighbors’ compassion. She said that if people cooked a meal, they tried to feed everybody. As soon as she could venture outside, she saw neighbors on their porches looking to see how everyone else was doing.
“With no power, no internet, no phone, no TV, people get out to talk their neighbors,” she said. “At night, with a flashlight or lantern, we played cards or parcheesi, things that I haven’t done since I was a child.”
When the storm hit, Rosas-Altieri and her sister had already been in Puerto Rico for four days. They planned to fly out of San Juan on Sept. 21, but Maria delayed their departure nine days. Rosas-Altieri said the storm left the majority of roads into San Juan impassible and knocked down two of the airport’s three control towers. She could not book or confirm her rescheduled flight from the blacked-out island, so that was left to Gaby.
Once Altieri booked her mom and aunt’s flight home, the worry had still not blown over. She said she heard rumors that the airport did not actually have power and airlines were not allowing anyone to check bags.
“For me, I couldn’t sleep,” Altieri said. “Really, my whole entire life was consumed with looking up stuff about the hurricane.”
A week after the storm, Rosas-Altieri and her sister filled their rental car with gas, packed their purses with bread and water and ditched their suitcases at their grandmother’s house. She said she did not know what to expect at the airport or if she would even be flying out that day. The 100-mile drive that usually should take two hours instead lasted around six.
“When we drove to the airport, that’s when I saw the devastation of the island,” Rosas-Altieri said. “It was unreal. It just looked like you had burned it. All the stuff was either gray or black.”
She and her sister made it to the airport the day before their flight and planned to sleep there that night. Upon arrival, Rosas-Altieri said there was still no power, and the cramped building was not ventilated.
“That actually was the scariest part for me. Even worse than the storm, it was the scene at the airport,” Rosas-Altieri said.
They needed a new plan.
“We found a cousin of ours,” she said. “We’re a pretty big family. She lives close to the airport and said, ‘I have no power, but I have water. You are welcome to come.’”
They spent the night at the cousin’s house in San Juan and caught their early-morning flight from San Juan to Atlanta the next day. Rosas-Altieri said there were 28 wheelchair-assisted passengers on the flight, and she realized how lucky she was to have secured a seat.
“Until the plane was in the air, I didn’t breathe calmly,” Rosas-Altieri said.
Altieri burst into tears when she saw her mom and aunt leaving the terminal in the Memphis airport.
“We had no communication,” Altieri said. “They called me, like, ‘Hey, we’re on our way to the airport. You need to come get us.’”
When she first heard from her mom eight days after the storm hit, Altieri created a GoFundMe for hurricane relief and set the goal at $1,000. She reached that goal in six days and said she now hopes to raise at least $2,000 to send to Puerto Rico in the form of food, cash or other supplies.
“I started it because I was desperate,” she said. “I wanted to feel like I was doing something.”
The combined support for Puerto Rico in donations from the states and national unity on the ground has given Altieri hope. She praised the relief efforts of celebrities like Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin and said she is excited for this weekend’s Puerto Rican Day Festival in Memphis, which will help fund recovery.
Alteieri said the coquis in Puerto Rico are starting to chirp again.