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'It's like the end of the world' inside San Juan's steaming airport

September 26,2017 01:18

"It's like the end of the world," said Andrew Arteaga, who spent five nights at the airport with his wife, Marjet Mendez, and 8-month-old daughter, Ayla. The family had been trying to return to Orange County, Calif., but had several Delta Air Lines ...

Rick Jervis, USA TODAY Published 12:14 p.m. ET Sept. 25, 2017 | Updated 7:17 p.m. ET Sept. 25, 2017

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Puerto Ricans are trying to make contact with relatives and friends after Hurricane Maria knocked out power and telephone services. Hundreds of other residents and tourists packed San Juan Airport on Sunday, which is barely functioning. (Sept. 25) AP

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — There's a new front in this island's growing humanitarian crisis in the wake of Hurricane Maria: the airport. 
Thousands of sweating, hopeful passengers have thronged inside Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, desperate to catch a flight off the storm-ravaged island. 
Airlines, which have canceled dozens of flights over the past week, began commercial flights to the U.S. on Friday. Passengers wait in long lines inside terminals running on backup generators with no air conditioning. Many have spent the night inside the steamy terminals, hoping for a chance to leave.
"It's like the end of the world," said Andrew Arteaga, who spent five nights at the airport with his wife, Marjet Mendez, and 8-month-old daughter, Ayla. 
The family had been trying to return to Orange County, Calif., but had several Delta Air Lines flights canceled before finding a United flight, which Arteaga said the airline offered for free.
"No A/C, no nothing, we're just sweating in here. They don't even give us water," he said "None of this is right."
More: In isolated Puerto Rican town, a need for water, power — and news
More: FEMA teams in Puerto Rico: 'It's absolutely devastating'
More: Hurricane Maria aftermath: Puerto Rico battles epic flooding
More: Tropical storm warnings posted in N.C. as Hurricane Maria spins close to the East Coast
Airlines began commercial flights out of San Juan on Friday, starting with just two flights a day per airline. The storm knocked out the control tower's radar system, forcing pilots to fly to the island using "visual confirmation," a trickier method that takes longer for planes to land and takeoff, said Elvis Perez, a service clerk for American Airlines. 
About 300 airline employees were flown in from Miami to assist in everything from baggage handling to ticketing, he said. But with the computer system still down, reservations had to be confirmed with phone calls to Miami. 
"It's been tough," he said. 

An American Airlines employee checks a passenger's information using a camping light at the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. The airport terminal has been running on backup generators since Hurricane Maria knocked out power throughout the island. (Photo: Rick Jervis, USA TODAY)

Airline employees checked IDs by camping light. Near the American counter, a line of passengers stretched nearly the entire length of the darkened Terminal B. Many fanned themselves with fans or shards of cardboard. Mothers sprinkled water on the sweaty heads of babies.
When the lights suddenly blinked on Monday morning, the crowds let out a cheer. 
Gregory Martin, an FAA spokesman, said recovery efforts in Puerto Rico now support a dozen commercial passenger flights a day at San Juan's airport. The FAA is regulating the use of gates at the airport to manage the demand for ramp space and to keep aircraft safely separated, he said.
“As the agency continues to restore radars, navigational aids and other equipment damaged during Hurricane Maria, the number of flights is expected to continue to increase,” Martin said.
The FAA airlifted a mobile air-traffic control tower to St. Thomas during the weekend. Hurricane Irma damaged the island’s tower at Cyril King International Airport and a mobile tower was brought to the island Sept. 13. But it had been removed in advance of Hurricane Maria.
“We’re also shuttling the controllers who staff the tower from San Juan to St. Thomas and back every day,” Martin said.
Pilots flying into St. Thomas must be able to see the airfield to land, rather than rely on instruments to guide them. New equipment recently arrived on the island to allow instrument landings, and new parts arrived Monday to repair radio equipment that controllers use, which Martin said should help.
“Slow going into St. Thomas as well,” Martin said.
Technicians are making their way to a second long-range radar site today at Pico del Este, which is located inside a National Park in Puerto Rico, on the top of a mountain. The last two miles to the site through the rain forest are impassable, so they are using chain saws to clear a path for themselves and the replacement equipment, Martin said.
At San Juan's airport, beleaguered travelers just wanted to hear these words: You can board your flight now.
Omar Carter, 36, of Las Vegas, was vacationing in San Juan with his wife, Suzette Robinson, when Hurricane Maria quickly grew and marched toward Puerto Rico, stranding them on the island. The couple had returned to the airport every day since Friday. Each day, their flight was canceled. 
They were back in line on Monday.
"We're just trying to stay optimistic and trying to get home," Carter said. 
Contributing: Bart Jansen, USA TODAY

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