Lynchburg’s Lydia Simerly has called her 90-year-old parents, Angel Ortiz Rivera and Bengina Rivera Rivera, every night for the past two weeks.
The couple, who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico with their daughter Wilma Rivera, hasn’t answered since Hurricane Maria hit the island.
“I waited, I waited. I called my sisters, and we all got in a conference call … to see what the plan was, but no one had a plan. We were just gonna wait,” said Lydia Simerly, 60. “I can’t wait no more.
“I can’t. I’m not that type of person.”
So the Simerlys and a family friend are headed to the island, a U.S. territory, to find them Saturday.
Ron Simerly, his two stepdaughters Sonia Huebner and Madalena Phelps and friend Christina Kline will fly out from Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday morning.
They will land that afternoon at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, which reopened Sept. 22. It is about an hour away by car from their destination in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.
Or about 14 hours by foot, Ron Simerly, 59, said Wednesday — but that’s a last resort.
The crew is hoping to have a rental car ready, but they won’t know if there are any working cars at the rental company until they arrive, Ron Simerly said. They’ll land at about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, with just a few hours to get to Aibonito before Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s curfew goes into effect.
“Otherwise they’ll be sleeping in the car,” Lydia Simerly said.
With a week of meals strapped to their backs and dozens of “humanitarian packets” — including water purification tablets, waterproof matches, collapsible water bottles and gas cans in tow — the group is on a mission to find “proof of life” for their family members while also helping anyone else in need.
“It’s not just about finding my family,” said Phelps, 39. “It’s about trying to ease somebody’s suffering while all this is going on.”
Unlike many others on the island who live in “shanties” — improvised homes made out of wood or recycled metal — the Riveras lived in a concrete home, Ron Simerly said.
In previous storms, flooding was common, and it wasn’t unusual for the family to stack furniture as high as they could before opening the doors to let the water run through.
“And then once it’s gone, you squeegee out the house and dry it out,” he said. “That’s during a normal storm.”
But this storm, considered a “potentially catastrophic” event by the National Hurricane Center, was different.
The roads in Aibonito often are washed out during regular-strength rainstorms, Lydia Simerly said. She’s not sure what they’ll find.
The Riveras’ backyard was flooded, and they lost their roof, power and running water after Hurricane Irma hit, but they were fine, Lydia Simerly said.
She received the last status update Tuesday, Sept. 19, the day before Hurricane Maria made landfall south of the Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico. That is about two hours east from Aibonito.
The family has called the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several other organizations, but they haven’t been able to get help or an answer, Ron Simerly said. So the group decided to take it upon themselves to find their family, he said.
The week before Maria hit the island, Angel Ortiz Rivera had a pacemaker installed, Lydia Simerly said, and the couple has other health issues that make her worried about access to medication and access to money to buy supplies.
“In my heart, I know my parents are okay,” Lydia Simerly said. “… but we got to fill their needs now. Can you imagine two 90-year-olds carrying water?”
“Or standing in line at Walmart for hours?” Phelps said.
Ronald Simerly is taking a generator and homemade water purification system to give to his in-laws. The hope is Angel Ortiz Rivera and Ron Simerly stay in Aibonito, as to not leave the home unattended for fear of looting, while Bengina Rivera Rivera, Wilma Rivera and the rest of the rescue crew come back to Lynchburg.
Lydia isn’t sure where her parents will be, but the group is ready to look for them at area shelters. They expect to fly back to Virginia on Oct. 13, but the group is expecting delays, Ron Simerly said.
“We don’t mind sitting and waiting,” he said. “We’re there to help family.”
People in Puerto Rico are waiting in line to leave, and others are stranded, hungry and hot, he said — a sharp contrast to his previous description of the island as “the closest thing to heaven and home that I have personally experienced.”
“I’ve never seen [Lydia] cry more in my life than in the past week,” he said.
Lydia Simerly was standing in front of her kitchen sink Monday night.
She said just turning on the sink reminds her of them.
“I just thought of them not having water, nothing to drink and you know? Their age, they’re standing in line.”
She cried and went to bed right after.
But she called her parents first.
Publication: The News and Advance