SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In the chaos and heat of the San Juan Airport, four Virginia Beach women searched for a man they barely knew.
“Taxi Tony” is what they called him. He gave two of the women a ride in his cab on this devastated island days earlier and, after learning how Hurricane Maria affected his home and neighborhood, the women promised him some supplies. Be back at the airport at 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 2 they told him.
And so Susan Sarrett, Becky Bump, Joy Haycox and Kathy O’Hara boarded a 5:50 a.m. flight out of Norfolk International Airport bound for San Juan. They brought 16 large plastic bins packed with dry goods, fans, wet wipes, Vienna sausages, three generators and dozens of other items dropped off at the Lynnhaven Dive Center in the days after word went out about their informal humanitarian mission.
Some of those items were slated for “Taxi Tony,” but there were other names on their list, too.
The diving community already connected the women. Now, so has their ongoing effort to help those in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
It began when Haycox traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands through San Juan to help deliver supplies for an animal rescue mission. Sarrett accompanied Haycox for part of the trip. Serendipity presented them with Sonia Morales, a United Airlines employee. When the connection Haycox expected to meet at the airport didn’t show up, Morales stepped in.
“She had a couple of boat connections,” Haycox said.
This is where serendipity and social media mix. The women became friends on Facebook and, as Maria bore down on Puerto Rico, it was Morales’ turn to ask for help. Could they send her a camp stove?
Motivated by the request, Sarrett put out calls on Facebook and through her daughter’s school to gather supplies. She and O’Hara, along with Sarrett’s daughter Tinsley, flew to Puerto Rico for a quick weekend visit to deliver the first of the supplies.
“Taxi Tony” shuttled them to their hotel and back. The women gave him bottled water and beef jerky.
“You’d have thought we gave him filet mignon,” Sarrett said.
The women reunited with Morales on Oct. 2 as she worked in baggage claim. In between many hugs they presented her with generators, a small air conditioner and other supplies to distribute. Though Maria dumped some water in her home, Morales said she made it through OK, though the camp stove, which Sarrett sent overnight the Sunday before the storm, never did arrive.
Neither had Tony.
Maybe he’s stuck in line somewhere, the women thought, trying to fill up on gas, which remains a hot commodity.
And so O’Hara and Sarrett scoured lines of vehicles outside the airport while Morales asked other airport employees for help.
How do you find a man whose last name you don’t know and who you can’t contact because phone service here remains mostly inoperable? About the only thing they did know about Tony was that he drives a pink-and-white-painted cab with a racy advertisement splashed across it for “Lips,” a gentlemen’s club.
After several hours and with dozens of items to give away before their afternoon flight — around the same time President Donald Trump was scheduled to arrive — the women had to give up.
A new driver shuttled them — and their plastic bins — to Guaynabo, a municipality about 12 miles outside the city, where several of the goods were slated for a surprise delivery to a friend’s elderly mother. They rode through congested city streets lined by countless downed trees and made worse without working traffic signals, laughing and joking while keeping an eye out for what they called the “Lips van.”
And so they pulled into the gated community where Leila Carles lives. Her son, Ricardo Melendez, co-owns Norfolk’s Todd Rosenlieb Dance Center and was a mentor to Haycox’s sons. During the surprise visit, Melendez video chatted with Carles, who is 84, and his sister, Sandra Melendez, using Bump’s phone, which was receiving service. Melendez called the experience “fantastic.” Prior to that, they’d been able to send text messages on occasion, but phone calls would lose connection, Melendez said.
“To see their smiles, though tired, brought a sense of ease I haven’t felt since the hurricane hit,” he wrote in a text message.
Neighbors gathered as the women presented Carles with the contents of their bins – Ensure nutrition drinks and strawberry jelly got the nod. One mentioned that a security guard sitting in his work vehicle a few yards away could use some help. The women summoned him over.
Maria ripped the roof off the home that Reinaldo Pagan, 55, shares with his mother, who is 94 and cannot walk, he said. Water soaked their beds, and they moved to the bottom floor, where Pagan’s sister lives.
The women loaded him down with food and batteries. Sarrett reached into one of the bins and pulled out a tarp. Can anyone use it, she asked?
“Oh, I can use one,” Pagan said. “I’ve definitely got something I can cover up.”
Soon the sun started to go down, and the women retreated to a hotel that Morales was able to secure for them using her endless stream of connections.
Two weeks after Maria tore through here and plunged this nation into darkness, the women plan to continue spreading light. They were fresh out of supplies by the time they reached the hotel, but learned that some of its workers could use help.
Sarrett and some of the others began hatching a plan on the ride to the airport Oct. 2 for a return trip to Puerto Rico, perhaps with other friends in tow.
A little while later, a passenger who had shared that ride spotted a “Lips van” in traffic.
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