NBA's J.J. Barea on Flying to Puerto Rico with Supplies After Hurricane Maria: 'I Hardly Recognized My Home'
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban lent Barea the team plane for the trip
The only way I can describe it is that it was like a bomb had gone off.
The Puerto Rico where I grew up was an island of beauty. Clear, blue water, golden sand, always green. But when our flight touched down in San Juan this past Tuesday, I hardly recognized my home. The sand was gone. The trees flattened. The water an ugly brownish-green.
As Puerto Ricans, we grow up with hurricanes. Our houses are made of concrete, even the roofs. When a storm comes, we stock up on food and water, then board up the windows and hunker down. I still remember when Hurricane Georges hit, when I was in ninth grade. I was with my parents and my two brothers at our house in Mayaguez, two and a half hours west of San Juan. It was crazy. It felt like the windows were going to fly off. We lost power and water for three or four weeks. In times like that, you become best friends with your neighbors. Everyone pitches in, cleaning up and trying to get water, food, and ice.
Last week was different though. Even before Hurricane Maria hit, I knew it would be disastrous. In Puerto Rico, our infrastructure is not like in the U.S. A little rainstorm and you lose electricity for 24 hours. Really, we’d been lucky these last 20 years. The hurricanes would veer away at the last second and only hit us a bit, or miss completely. Like a few weeks ago, when Irma changed course. I was on the island at the time, preparing for the worst.
This time I was in Dallas, for the start of training camp with the Mavericks, the team I’ve played for during eight of my 11 NBA seasons. It was tough to be that far away. After Maria made landfall on Sept. 19 as a category four storm, I couldn’t reach anybody for days. Not my friends or my parents. All my buddies here in the States were texting each other: Have you heard anything? No. Have you? We all worried watching the coverage on TV. We knew our island was in trouble.
I needed to do something. Mark Cuban, our owner, had texted me after the storm, asking about my family. Mark and I have a great relationship. Now I sent him a text: “Crazy idea here any way we can get a plane to take a lot of stuff to pr?”
He responded right away. “I’ll check on the Mavs plane.”
Thirty minutes later, my phone beeped again. “Just emailed u,” Mark wrote. I checked my inbox and couldn’t believe it: Mark had already contacted his aviation team. He said they could make a run as early as Monday. It’s hard for me to express how grateful I was.
My wife, Viviana Ortiz, and I set to work right away. We knew that food, water, and basic supplies were the most important, as well as electrical generators. We have an amazing community of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in Dallas and they were already gathering donations. We collected enough supplies to fill six or seven 18-wheelers. Meanwhile, we worked on details: How much could we bring on the plane? Is there a weight limit? Can we get clearance to fly? Which airport?
On Sunday, five days after the storm, I finally heard from my parents, who called from a neighbor’s house. They were a little shook but O.K. On Monday, we loaded the plane, filling the cargo holds to the top. On Tuesday, at 5:30 a.m, we took off, carrying 32 generators, 14,000 pounds of water, 10,000 pounds of food and 3,000 pounds of medical supplies. We also brought diapers, pet food, clothing, cleaning supplies, and one of life’s necessities: toilet paper. With me were my wife and 10 of my best friends from Dallas, almost all Puerto Ricans. That way we’d have the manpower to unload the plane ourselves if we needed to.
Four hours after takeoff, we arrived. Every year I fly back to PR with my family after the NBA season but I’d never seen it like this. The airport was mayhem. San Juan was chaos. No traffic, just people running around. It was crazy.
We did our best to spread out the supplies. Some of the generators went to doctors, who took them to hospitals. Friends from Mayaguez met us at the airport. My wife is from Corozal, in the middle of the island, and her friends came too. Everything else—which was most of the supplies—went to the convention center in San Juan. That’s the main staging area for people who’ve lost their homes.
That night, we returned to Dallas, having tripled our numbers. We brought back my parents, my grandma and some younger cousins. My dad stayed. He runs my foundation and they have work to do right now. We also brought back the mother of one of my best friends; her son is about to have twins in Miami and she was supposed to be there. And, right before we left, an older couple came over. She was supposed to get a transplant in Maryland. Was there any way we could get her there? So we talked to the pilot and got her on board.
While in Puerto Rico, I saw signs of U.S. assistance. The Army. A flight full of NYC Fire Department personnel, unloading. I know aid groups are on site. But let me tell you: It isn’t enough. People won’t go back to work for six months, maybe a year. It will be two years before it’s back to normal.
And this is the message the people in Puerto Rico wanted me to take back to the States. That it’s bad down there. Really, really bad. An emergency situation. Half the people don’t have clean water. Plenty don’t have homes. Sick people can’t get medical assistance. Crime is rising. One of my friends said every day is like a bad movie, over and over again.
So here’s what I’d like to say to anyone reading this story: Every little bit helps. Any contacts you have. Any packages you can get to Puerto Rico right now. By mail. By water or boat. It doesn’t matter. Donate money to one of the nonprofits working to provide aid. It’s all appreciated.
On Friday, we’re headed back. Same flight plan, another load. I can’t go this time because I can’t leave the team, but my wife and my friends will. We can’t just stand by. We’re all U.S. citizens, after all. We need to lift each other up.
This article originally appeared on Si.com