A Father's Harrowing Journey Through Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Aftermath

 

Bryson Merrill and his family moved to Ponce, Puerto Rico in July in order to attend medical school and had planned on staying there four years.

Days after a category 5 Hurricane Irma skirted by the island, Bryson's wife Samantha and their two children boarded a flight for a trip that they had planned in advance in order to attend a wedding in Utah. Bryson stayed back because of his school schedule and upcoming exams.

A few days after, Hurricane Maria, another category 5 storm hit Puerto Rico, this time effectively knocking out all of the power from the island. For 3 days, Samantha and the children were unable to find or communicate with Bryson as he was stranded in Ponce. On the third day after the hurricane, Bryson felt he should go on a walk. While walking along the highway, two friends driving by spotted Bryson. They told him to come with them to San Juan where there had been rumors of one working cell tower. Once in range to receive cellular service, he was able to turn on his phone, which he had kept off to conserve battery, and contact his wife, Samantha in Utah. She arranged a flight for him out of San Juan to take him to Utah on Monday, September 25th.

Low on resources, Bryson managed to hitchhike his way back to San Juan after surviving on rationed canned food and water. Despite the hot and humid weather in Puerto Rico, he decided to pack his winter clothes since he could only bring what he could carry and he was trying to return to Salt Lake City, Utah where temperatures were much cooler.


70+ miles later, he made it to San Juan Airport to find his United Airlines flight had been canceled. He was immediately met with a line of 300-400+ people trying to get on a once a day humanitarian flight that was first come first serve. After missing the flight by only 7 passengers, Bryson spent the night in line to wait for the next humanitarian flight for the following day. While there, United Airlines went above and beyond to take care of their passengers who were waiting in the hot and humid conditions by offering snacks and water. Generators powered minimum electricity to provide some light, but no air conditioning and food and water were very limited. It was almost impossible to sleep with hundreds of people packed inside in an oven-like condition.

In order to keep the airways and two operable runways in San Juan open for military and emergency response, United, Delta, and American Airlines were each allowed one flight per day and Jet Blue 3 flights per day out of the San Juan airport to take passengers for free off of the island and to the states. Bryson managed to secure a boarding pass to leave Puerto Rico through a United Airlines humanitarian relief flight to Chicago O'hare International. United Airlines put all passengers on emergency status and connected their flights from Chicago for free to their final destination, putting some in hotels who couldn’t connect that night. While waiting, passengers got to know each other in line and took turns stepping out in order to use the restrooms, charge phones, and find food.

One man by the name of Yuriel, heading to New Jersey, was in line with Bryson and had spent the entire night wetting a rag in order to keep the motor of the only fan in the United terminal from overheating. He received a loud applause from other passengers for his efforts in helping to comfort everyone who was waiting at the airport. Yuriel simply sat down with tears in his eyes and said all he could think about was helping those around him as they waited in line.

An 83-year-old "abuela" was also waiting in line hoping to get to New Jersey. Her nephew had just flown into Puerto Rico to help FEMA with the relief efforts. Upon arrival, he did not know where his aunt was, although he knew she was in the airport. He managed to find his aunt waiting in line with Bryson on the second day of waiting in line. He thanked Bryson for "taking care of his tia" and returned to working with the FEMA relief efforts. Bryson was able to stay with the abuela making sure she boarded the plane and arranged for three other passengers who were also headed to Jersey to assume care of the elderly woman and make sure she made it to her gate in Chicago.

 

In order to conserve jet fuel and energy, airlines had to document passengers on the manifest by using the communication systems on the plane, which took hours just to get the plane boarded and in the air.

 

Once their plane arrived in Chicago, all passengers on Bryson‘s flight were met by United airlines employees holding signs with the names of the passengers' final destinations written on them. Each passenger lined up in front of the sign with their destination and was led to their final departure gate. By 10:30 PM CST, Bryson was reunited with his family in Salt Lake City.

The reunion

The family plans on returning back to Puerto Rico to finish what they originally started. They will not return until power is restored and life is livable again on the island, which they presume will be no less than 4-6 months. A GoFundMe page was set up to help their family get back on their feet.

Bryson and Samantha Merrill with their two children

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