Many Puerto Ricans desperate to return home to island reeling from disaster

The island is largely without electricity and running water, but demand for plane tickets is high as Puerto Ricans attempt to return to their relatives and homes

A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

As Puerto Rico came into view below, passengers on the JetBlue aid flight from New York fell silent as the scale of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria became apparent: the usually verdant mountains were brown and barren, and the bright blue water offshore was dotted with large aid ships.

A member of the flight crew addressed the passengers: “I understand what you’re feeling might be overwhelming, but Puerto Ricans are resilient.”

Before the plane touched town, that same crew member said “Puerto Rico se levanta” – Puerto Rico rises up. His voice broke. The passengers clapped, cried and whistled.

The flight carried emergency responders and journalists – but also ordinary Puerto Ricans, desperate to return home to an island still reeling from the disaster.

Even though Puerto Rico is now largely without electricity, running water is a luxury and mobile phone reception is no longer taken for granted, demand for plane tickets is high.

San Juan international airport remains crowded with stranded travelers desperate to leave the territory, but many others are heading in the opposite direction. Some returnees want to track down relatives they have not heard from since before the storm – others simply want to return home.

Hector Orellana said he would preferred to have been in Puerto Rico when the hurricane struck. At least, he said, he would have known if his parents were alive and safe.

Danalys Luna and Edgardo Feliciano wash their clothes in a stream as people wait for electrical and water grids to be repaired. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Instead, he returned from a conference in New York on Sunday morning, carrying some canned food, water and a rough plan to get to the eastern San Lorenzo municipality – which is almost impossible to reach because of a bridge collapse – and find his parents.

“I don’t know how, but I’m going to get to my house,” he said. “I just want to get there.”

San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marin airport is struggling. Most flights this weekend were cancelled, even though the weather was safe again. At least one flight had to turn back because it lost communication with the airport control tower.

Also onboard…

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