Puerto Rico’s Biggest Airport Becomes a Refugee Camp

The waitlist for some airlines flying out of the island is 20,000 people long, and air-traffic controllers have one working radar left.

Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg/Getty

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico — The only thing leaving Puerto Rico’s main airport is patience.

Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport’s radar system was knocked out and its infrastructure severely damaged by Hurricane Maria. It was relying on 21 generators for electricity as of Tuesday and the airport is running low on fuel. The National Guard was streaming in supplies here and working to reestablish communications. Airport director Agustin Arellano told The Daily Beast some airlines have a waiting list of 20,000 people trying to get off the island.

"We usually run around 200 flights a day and we are barely getting 16 flights right now," Arellano said, adding full normalization of airport operations could take weeks or months.

"People prefer to wait here instead of dying on the island," a Jetblue clerk said.

The hallways were crowded with passengers fed up with excuses and having to sleep on the floor.

"We feel that officials evade us. They know the situation we are in. We would expect for them to handle our claims more professionally. All they did was hand us military meals to try and console us," Victor Gardner said, sparking a firestorm of complaints from other travelers who have been waiting to board a flight for more than three days straight.

Gardner added sparking a wave of denial from other tourists left stranded.

"I'm tired of this. I just want to go home. Get me home!" a woman shouted in one of the terminals where people are seen sleeping on floors and claiming urgently for decent food.

Only one restaurant is operating with limited food.

"That food is too expensive. I'm way over my budget now. I was supposed to be here for a month and it's been almost two now," Richard Copeland, a tourist from North Carolina said.

The airport had originally aimed resume international flights on Monday but has now rescheduled them to Friday.

"My parents can't believe the mess that is happening right now on the island. I've been waiting to get back home for over four days now," Rodrigo Baez said.

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Locals are also camped out, trying to find a plane with an empty seat to any destination in the U.S.

"I've lost everything. I'm really thankful of being alive, but I don't deserve to live like this. The mental health of my family members is far more important," Jordan Calderon said.

Calderon had no luggage and said his belongings were damaged by flooding.

Meanwhile, cases of looting have been reported across the island.

"It's a really scary situation during the night. There's not a single pole lit and if something happens to you there's no cellphone service to call for help," Elena Rodriguez told The Daily Beast, adding one of her neighbors was carjacked in the middle of the night.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Tuesday 36 arrests were made for violations of the a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.