NEW YORK (Reuters) – There were only a few minutes left before baggage carousel No. 4 jolted to life at John F. Kennedy International Airport, soon to be ringed with people coming from Puerto Rico on one-way tickets they never would have bought if not for the hurricane.
Moving at a canter, Emily Pagan and three colleagues from various New York state government agencies carted their fold-up table halfway down the Terminal 5 arrivals hall, setting it up by the carousel against a pillar.
They had volunteered to help orient the latest batch of the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans that New York officials estimate will flee from the lingering devastation wrought a month ago by Hurricane Maria.
Many are expected to stay for months – or years – and some forever, in a largely reluctant wave of migration abetted by the spare mattresses and couches of the one million Puerto Ricans who already call the New York area home.
“A lot of them are saying they came to start a new life here because they lost everything,” Pagan said on her third day of greeting arrivals from the U.S. territory, where the power grid and water supply remain in disarray.
She tried to make the makeshift help desk look nice, centering a bowl of mints and squaring off the piles of leaflets about health and job resources.
A clipboard wedged into her elbow, Pagan hurried up to anyone who looked like they were waiting for relatives from the island, flipping between English and Spanish: “Hi, I‘m Emily, and I represent the state.”
Lissette Feliciano, who had driven down from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was among those grateful for a leaflet. Then bags began thudding onto the carousel and the automatic doors slid open to admit her 10-year-old nephew, sporting an Incredible Hulk T-shirt, alongside her youngest sister, Madeline Feliciano.
The nephew, Carlos, grinned as he was nuzzled by his aunt. It was their first time leaving the island. They never expected an airplane cabin would be so cold, he said, shivering.
“I‘m so-so,” his mother said, looking daunted.
Many Puerto Rican families are divided between those who prefer the island’s warmth and those who cannot understand why one would not move to the mainland’s hustle, as Lissette did seven years ago. But the storm put those disagreements on hold.
“Four days, no running water,” Madeline said of their hometown, Isabela. She did not know when they could return.
“They’ll stay with me until we can find something for her,” said Lissette, who had already found a bilingual school for Carlos.
They headed out, with Madeline and Carlos added to the tally on Pagan’s clipboard.
People gravitated toward Pagan and her purple top bearing the logo of New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, where she normally works as a compliance officer.
Born in Puerto Rico, Pagan, 42, listened to the accounts of each new arrival that made her beautiful native island seem unfamiliar: no water, no power, no green left on the tropical trees, no sort of place where a child or grandparent could thrive.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said between flights. But she tried to put on a welcoming face, slipping lollipops to children before moving on to the next family. She was yet to meet anyone without relatives to stay with, but younger adults seemed worried about finding jobs in a place where they had never planned to live.
Pagan cooed at the green eyes of a 7-year-old boy called Jayden with a Transformers backpack. “You speak English!” she said after the boy squirmed at the compliment. “You understand everything I say!”
Jayden’s father, Joemil Ramirez, was returning to New York City, where he was raised, for only three weeks, partly for its functional telephone network. Much of that time he expected to spend making calls trying to salvage his hurricane-ravaged restaurant in Rincon. But when he returned, he would be leaving behind Jayden, who would move in with the boy’s mother, from whom Ramirez was separated.
“There’s no place for him to be, no school,” Ramirez said. “It’s a situation I wouldn’t give to my own worst enemy.”
Genoveva Mendez, 48, watched the carousel from her wheelchair. She had been undergoing physical therapy three times a week following a stroke, but Maria halted that.
“We had to force her,” said her daughter, Jessenia Lalama. Mendez had refused the offer of a ticket to New York for weeks.
“I like the island, the island’s beautiful,” Mendez said, becoming tearful at the memory of her home before the hurricane.
When the hall emptied, a lone suitcase remained on the carousel as Pagan and her colleagues carried their table back to the corner, ready to greet the next day’s flights.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler