Katherine Williams gave her parents a special Christmas gift this year: a chance to leave hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and start a new life in North Carolina.
Angel Ortiz and Julia Ayala, both in their 70s, arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport just before 11:30 Christmas night. They were met by Williams and their 11-year-old granddaughter, Cameron.
“Look at that,” Angel Ortiz said to Cameron as he embraced her. “How are you, child?”
The couple’s journey from Puerto Rico, where they had been without electricity and water since Hurricane Maria made landfall, had been in the works for weeks. Williams, 48, and her co-workers at the Duke Clinical Research Institute raised money online to bring Ortiz and Ayala to Durham.
When Hurricane Maria hit the island on Sept. 20, Williams, who works as a case adjudicator at Duke, told her colleagues she was worried about her parents. A co-worker set up a fundraiser in November on GoFundMe.com with a goal of raising $800 to buy airline tickets for the couple and Benji, their beloved Schnauzer who had been with the family for 15 years.
The fundraiser has garnered more than $1,600, and it got an unexpected boost from a Duke physician who donated his unused airline miles.
“He said, ‘I have all these miles that I’ll never use. I’ll be happy to bring them here,’ ” Williams said. “He emailed me the tickets.”
Ortiz and Ayala were born in Puerto Rico and left for New York City when they were teenagers, hoping for a better life. Ortiz, now 74, made a living unloading trucks for a scrap metal company in Brooklyn while Ayala, who will turn 71 next month, spent four decades working for a manufacturing company.
They raised three children – Williams and two boys – and Williams said they were strict, Catholic parents. They struggled to make it with little money.
“We ate rice every day,” Williams said. “Some days we couldn’t eat meat. We would just have rice with an egg on top.”
After their children grew up, the couple decided to retire in Puerto Rico. They settled in Rio Grande, a beach town about 25 miles east of San Juan and 7 miles from El Yunque National Forest, the only rainforest in the United States.
“It’s breathtaking, with crystal-blue water so clear you can see your feet,” Williams said of the town of about 50,000 people. “One of the biggest things we liked were the coconuts and plantain. ... You could literally walk down the road from my grandmother’s house and there would be the mango trees. You could just cut one off and eat it.”
Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm, splintered homes and caused cataclysmic flooding. The official death toll in Puerto Rico is 64, but The New York Times this month reported that the number is likely much higher.
“It’s so hot. There’s no fan and it’s hard to sleep in that heat,” Williams said. “It’s so unbearably hot, my aunt is sleeping on the floor to stay cool. The mosquitoes. There’s still so much devastation down there.”
Ortiz has diabetes, and doctors had amputated all five toes from his left foot weeks before the storm. A nurse had been visiting him every day to pump fluid from the wound.
When the main road leading into Rio Grande was destroyed by the hurricane, Williams said, the nurse could visit only about once a week.
Williams didn’t hear from her parents for two terrifying, sleepless weeks after the storm. She was having coffee at a local Starbucks when her cellphone rang.
“When I answered, it was my mother,” she said. “I just burst out crying. She said, ‘Don’t cry. We’re OK.’ ”
Her parents managed to get the floodwater out of their apartment, but her father’s feet had gotten wet and he was running a fever. She later learned that her mother stood in line for hours each day in hopes of getting a block of ice.
On Christmas night, Ortiz and Ayala arrived at the airport with a Bible and three suitcases.
“That’s all they have,” Williams said. “They carried everything they own in those three bags.”
Their dog, Benji, didn’t make the trip. He died after struggling with cancer.
But Ortiz was all smiles during his reunion with his daughter. They’ve always had a special connection. He once borrowed money from his boss to buy her a dress and shoes to wear to her senior prom.
Ayala, quiet and reserved, struggles with English.
“She said she is looking forward to a new start,” Williams said. “She said she is excited.”
Williams moved to North Carolina nearly three decades ago. Her son lives in California now and her daughter often spends Christmas with her father.
From now on, Williams will celebrate the holidays with her parents.
“This is the last Christmas I’ll be alone,” she said. “I’ve been blessed.”
It was midnight when the family piled into a friend’s SUV and pulled away from the airport. A new life awaited.
Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald