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‘Helpless, Worried and Sick': Puerto Rico's Vast Outages Leave Relatives on Mainland Worried

Gov. Ricardo Rossello has said it could be months before Puerto Rico fully regains power — 95 percent of cell sites were knocked out of service

The last time Philadelphia resident Kareem Anthony heard from his Aunt Zulma, who lives in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, was 6 a.m. Wednesday, just as Hurricane Maria made landfall.

“We haven’t heard anything from our family, and we are worried,” Anthony said one day later. “My ‘titi’ Zulma said the mayor just said to them, 'Do the best you can and try to survive.'”

Maria was one of the strongest storms on record to hit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory home to 3.4 million people. And that came less than two weeks after another massive storm, Hurricane Irma, sideswiped the island, leaving 70 percent without power and killing dozens on nearby islands. Puerto Rico was spared any fatalities from Irma, but at least 13 deaths are being assessed as possibly related to Maria so far, Puerto Rico's governor said Friday. 

Maria’s powerful force winds ravaged what remained of the island’s state-owned power grid — which was in sorry shape long before the most recent storm season. Overall, more than 95 percent of cell sites were knocked out of service across Puerto Rico, with nearly two-thirds of the island's counties having their sites totally wiped out by Maria, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The territory's $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. It abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island, whose residents gained U.S. citizenship 100 years ago, subject to regular blackouts.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello has said it could be months before Puerto Rico fully regains power.

"We knew this was going to happen given the vulnerable infrastructure," Rossello said Thursday.

Rossello said he hadn't yet made contact with officials in 85 percent of the island or even been able to reach to his parents, The New York Times reported

President Donald Trump spoke to Rossello Thursday evening, saying Puerto Rico was "absolutely obliterated" by Maria.

Trump said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency responders are helping the territory begin the recovery process. He added that he will visit Puerto Rico soon.

FEMA said it would open an air bridge from the mainland on Friday, with three to four military planes flying to the island every day carrying water, food, generators and temporary shelters.

Anthony, who saw images of the floodwaters inundating entire neighborhoods, described the aftermath of the hurricane as “gut-wrenching.” He said his family in Juana Diaz lives on a hill, so it's less likely floodwaters will reach them. But he said he expects the damage to be a "catastrophe."

“I care about the safety and well-being of our loved ones. Material things can be replaced,” Anthony said.

Yovani Baez-Rose, of Lowell, Massachusetts, posted on Twitter that she had not heard from her parents, who live in Rio Hondo Comerio, Puerto Rico. Baez-Rose said she exchanged text messages with her mother until 9 p.m. Tuesday and hasn’t heard from her since. At 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, her mother posted a Facebook status sharing her concerns over the harsh winds and rain, making Baez-Rose anticipate the worst.

“It’s awful. I feel so helpless,” she said. “In my mind they are fine … but the inability to confirm that is unnerving. I just want to hear something.”

Jarrod Childs, from Sacramento, California, last spoke to his wife, who is in Carolina, Puerto Rico, early Wednesday. Childs told NBC via Twitter that he feels “helpless, worried and sick,” and just wants to hear her voice saying she’s okay.

Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents came originally from Puerto Rico, was struggling to touch base with her loved ones there. The high court's first Hispanic justice was speaking at an event Thursday in Washington, D.C., and said she had yet to hear from half her family, The Associated Press reported

Cellphone and internet service collapsed over much of the island. The only radio station that remained on the air during the hurricane — WAPA 680 AM — was relaying messages to help connect friends and families, the AP reported.

Major cellphone carriers including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are temporarily offering free calls, data and texting to those affected by the storm.

Yet as of Friday morning, 95.4 percent of wireless sites were out of service, slightly worse than a day earlier. Forty-seven of Puerto Rico's 78 counties' cell sites were totally inoperable, according to the FCC. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission is reaching out to communications providers in Puerto Rico for more information on the ground and working closely with the FEMA. 

"Unfortunately, getting Puerto Rico’s communications networks up and running will be a challenging process, particularly given the power outages throughout the island," Pai said in a statement. "But the FCC stands ready to do whatever we can to help with this task. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Puerto Rico.”

Some have had success reaching their loved ones in Puerto Rico online, sometimes with the help of friends and even strangers. Many took to Twitter using hashtags of the towns their loved ones are from, desperate for any information about the extent of devastation there. Worried relatives also shared messages on the walkie-talkie app Zello, as others did when hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck

Nicole Acevedo, a graduate student in New York City, was able to communicate with her parents, grandparents and uncle in San Juan through Facebook statuses and text messages.

“They are okay. The rest of the losses can be replaced,” Acevedo said.

A chain of Facebook statuses have also been copied and pasted on various users' accounts, stating that they are willing to reach out to families by calling from their own personal phones under the hashtag #PRStrong.

A growing Facebook group called “Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico” had at least 41,000 active members as of Thursday. The group is meant to help Puerto Ricans locate family by posting photos, captioned with their names and possible locations. 

Puerto Rico's government has asked people who have not been able to determine the status of friends and family who live on the island to reach out to its staffers. The territory's Federal Affairs Administration on Thursday provided a phone number (202-800-3133) and an email address ( The phone line was full as of Friday morning. NBC has reached out to the government in Puerto Rico to ask when it will be re-opened. 

People using the service are asked to provide contact information and as many details about their loved one as possible, including name, age and their possible locations.

If you are struggling to connect with relatives and loved ones in Puerto Rico, click here for more information on resources that could help.

NBC's Daniel Macht and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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