Minnesotans with ties to Puerto Rico fear Maria's impact

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Javier Morillo and family

Darkness is expected to hover over Puerto Rico for months after Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the island in nearly a century, zip-sawed across the U.S. commonwealth.

Governor Ricardo Rossello Monday urged President Trump to declare Puerto Rico a disaster zone. The president via Twitter Wednesday night posted “Governor @RicardoRossello - We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe! #PRStrong”

Remember, it was only two weeks ago that Hurricane Irma weakened the island’s already compromised power-grid. Wednesday, 70 percent of the people on the island were also without clean water. 

While the territory seems worlds away from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, many Minnesotans have ties to Puerto Rico and remain in a state of angst as they wait to hear back from loved ones.

“I’m asking 'how are they,' and they used one word, 'Mal, mal'... 'bad,' very bad and it’s heartbreaking,” said Julio Ojeda-Zapata, a long-time Pioneer Press reporter who grew up on the island and has managed to reach some friends via Facebook.

“This is horrible, absolutely horrible, absolutely nothing like what I experienced as a kid.”

While the ravaged island is under a total blackout, some are lucky to have working generators and spotty mobile phone signals.

“I was in spin class this morning and I almost started bawling,” Senator Melisa Franzen (DFL-Dist. 49) told Fox 9.

Franzen just returned to Minnesota from Puerto Rico on Tuesday with her infant son Arthur, after a previously planned visit. The busy mother of two is eager to hear back from her parents among other loved ones.

“I have a grandmother who’s 94 years old, on oxygen, and I’d care deeply to know her status, because she will have no power; even though they have a generator, you have to find gas for it,” she shared.

Javier Morillo, the president of Local SEIU 26, is also a Minnesotan from Puerto Rico.

“My parents are in Bayamon which is a little inland, my sister lives in Carolina on the waterfront at a high rise and she and her family stayed there, so we lost communication around midnight,” Morillo said, “It’s just frightening. You’re used to being able to be in touch with people quickly, but to think they might be in danger, you know, your head just goes to all kinds of things and I’m seeing all the images of Puerto Rico and it’s just devastating.”

Flash flooding and mudslides have also been forecasted for parts of the island.

Mainland Puerto Ricans also fear Hurricane Maria’s body blow might be too much for the island of more than 3.6 million people to sustain on top of mounting financial and political crisis.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that Puerto Ricans on the island and off the island are U.S. citizens. Every Puerto Rican in the U.S. has family on the island and vice versa – we have deep, deep connections on the island and everything that’s going on there, and this is going to be a tough rebuild.” Morillo said.

Life-long Minnesotan Jeffrey Gonzalez also grips his cellphone.

“My mother and father are from Cayey,” the U.S. Navy veteran said. Also eager to hear back from family, he too, shares Morillo's fears.

“I hope the U.S. government will realize that for many generations Puerto Ricans have served the military and U.S. honorably… I hope we’re not a forgotten people,” he said.

Ramsey County commissioner Rafael Ortega is another Puerto Rican Minnesotan. Ortega has family across the U.S. Territory who he hasn’t heard from since early Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, Governor Rossello has announced a 6 p.m. - 6 a.m. curfew on the island through Saturday and says they remain in a critical phase to offer aid and determine the extent of Hurricane Maria’s damage.