On the mainland, Puerto Ricans are still waiting for any news about loved ones on the island. For Alexandra Gates, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, communication with extended family in Puerto Rico has been limited. “We have literally gotten two text messages and one or two very spotty phone calls from them,” Gates says. “All they were saying is 'hey we're alive,’ and that's it. Then it all goes dark again.” Since most wi-fi on the island is down, the WhatsApp groups that the family usually uses to keep tabs seamlessly with people on both sides of the Caribbean have mostly gone dark, and family members have had to rely on pilgrimages to working cell towers in order to send brief status updates by text.
For cousins in or near the capital of San Juan, this is an inconvenient, but not terribly difficult proposition. For cousins further out in more remote areas, updating family means using limited gasoline supplies to take long trips across washed out roads, mud, and debris in order to stand in line outside a working tower.
But in more remote areas, even those options aren’t available. The tiny, rural island municipality of Vieques, which used to house a Navy munitions test facility, only had tenuous infrastructure connections to the larger island before it suffered a direct hit from Maria. Now, according to residents, the only power on Vieques is supplied by generators, which must themselves be resupplied regularly with gasoline from the main island, which itself might face gasoline supply problems in the near future. Power isn’t expected to be restored for months, and most telephone lines and trees on the island are down. Cell service hasn’t been working, and only a handful of satellite phones—including some owned and operated by FEMA officials—are available to provide updates to the authorities or to families. According to Steven Mueller, a resident of Vieques currently working out of Washington, D.C., “they're entirely dependent on one power line and one water line that we have to the main island.”
Still, residents of Vieques are working to get around those barriers. The day after Hurricane Maria hit, Vieques resident Brittany Roush began using Facebook to coordinate communications and aid. “This effort started with the Facebook page Vieques Peeps that most residents use to connect with each other,” Roush says. “The morning after the storm, there were a few hours where people had lost contact and frantic posts were starting to pile up.” Roush and friends who were not on Vieques when it was hit began taking calls and posts about family members and working to provide up-to-date information.
Those efforts evolved into the ViequesLove project, which Roush runs along with Mueller, her husband, and which has raised over $200,000 via GoFundMe. The group has worked to maintain a list of people verified as safe on Vieques by communicating with the few residents with satellite phones, having coordinated supply runs with government officials, and on Sunday and Monday managing to charter a plane to drop off more supplies on the island. Those flights helped resupply the hospital, where doctors and nurses are currently operating in tents, relying on a gasoline stockpile that can keep generators going for five days.