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'Let's get them out of there': Utah company evacuates employees from Puerto Rico

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Sarah Velilla can usually talk about Hurricane Maria without getting too emotional.

But when she mentions the massive storm stripping all the greenery from her island, or that she didn't get to a chance to say goodbye to her mother before flying to the United States, the tears come.

"I haven't had a chance to hug my mom," Velilla admitted quietly, blinking quickly to stay her emotions.

Her 8-year-old daughter, Eva, was playing in the living room and glanced toward her. Velilla flashed her a quick smile. "I love you."

Zurixx, a Utah-based financial education company, flew its entire office staff and their families out of Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit, including Velilla and her daughter.

The powerful Category 4 storm ripped through Puerto Rico with 150 mph winds, the strongest hurricane in 100 years to hit the island nation, according to the Associated Press. More than 45 people died in the storm, and according to FEMA reports earlier this week, just 12 percent of customers have electricity on the island and about 57 percent of customers of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority have drinking water.

"Our first instinct was what do we have to do to get them safe," said company co-founder and president, Jeff Spangler. "Once we started realizing the extremity of the situation, we said let's get them out of there."

The company moved 25 people in total, including 15 employees. The displaced families received rental cars and homes near the company office in Cottonwood Heights.

Zurixx also donated more than $60,000 to hurricane relief efforts.

Many employees teared up when talking to the Deseret News Tuesday about leaving their homes after the catastrophic hurricane hit the island on Sept. 20.

"The first time I got a hot shower I almost cried," Velilla said. "First, because it has been so long since I got one. And second, just thinking that my family doesn't have that luxury."

Rainforest in ruins

Though hurricanes are common this time of year, Velilla was surprised the island was hit by two hurricanes in a month.

The 39-year-old native had restocked her fridge after Hurricane Irma, but the food wouldn't last long if the power was knocked out again. She went into "survival mode," boiling water and stocking up on canned food, batteries and giant plastic jugs of water.

"We had (stored) water everywhere in the house. It was like, 'I hope the water goes out, because if it doesn't, I don't know what I'm going to do with this much water,'" she said with a smile. "That's a joke, obviously. But we were really anxious."

She remembered being a college student when Hurricane Georges hit the island in 1998. But she didn't remember the damage being as awful as what was left after Hurricane Maria.

"We used to have a rainforest. And now we just have ... nothing," she said.

Her family made it through the storm safely, she said, although without basic supplies. But "we Puerto Ricans, whenever we get to this point, that's where we shine. Because we do help each other."

She and her daughter packed only a few clothes for their flight to Utah.

"I was crazy to get back to the office and work," Velilla said. "This is what got me here, this job, so I need to give 110 percent."

She never stops thinking about Puerto Rico. When the rare chance comes and her mother calls, she never mentions her needs on the island.

"That's so mom," Velilla said, smiling and blinking hard. "What a mom thing to do, to put their kids' needs in front of their own."

'Aftermath was worst part'

Erin Hayes, 25, was born in Utah but moved to work in Zurixx's Puerto Rico office and ran a dog rescue shelter on the island with her boyfriend.

Her favorite thing about the island was the sun, the beach and the warm weather. But she was terrified about the hurricane.

"I was more scared for Irma, because it was supposed to be so big," Hayes said. "But we had no idea."

When the hurricane hit, Hayes said, she didn't sleep for 24 hours and spent the night mopping water leaking in under the front door.

"I've never heard anything like it or seen anything like it before," she said. "But as scary as that was, the aftermath was the worst part."

With no power, no water and facing scorching heat, she said not even the birds or the homeless dogs were outside after the storm. Lines were miles long for supplies.

"And that's still going on right now," Hayes said. "You can see inside people's homes. Their beds made, their fridges, where they lived. You can see inside because everything is gone now."

She felt relieved when her company offered to fly her back to Utah. Her rescue dogs were also flown to the United States via another rescue nonprofit. Hayes arrived in Utah on Sunday.

"The whole island looks like it was lit on fire," Hayes said as she began to cry. "That part is hard to me because it's a hard place to live anyway."

Making sacrifices

Tanairi Padro spoke with her mother for the first time on Tuesday. Her entire family was still in Puerto Rico when she was relocated to Utah.

"I was watching the winds and the rain and everything, and I didn't think it was so badly destroyed," she said.

Padro also lived through Hurricane Georges, a Category 3 storm in 1998. But when she went outside after Hurricane Maria, "this was worse."

"No one this time knew how to prepare," she said.

The 32-year-old Puerto Rican started waking up before the sunrise to wait in lines for hours to get gas or ice or groceries. Thankfully, everything was intact at her apartment, which suffered some wate damage.

"My husband and I cried happy tears, because we hadn't lost anything. We got lucky. Not too many people with that luck," she said.

When she heard her company wanted to fly its employees off the island, Padro knew she'd have a hard time finding another job if she stayed.

"I left crying," she said, dabbing at her eyes. "But I have to make some sacrifices and that's what I did."

One word she would use to describe her experience is impotemica, or feeling powerless and helpless.

"You want to help them but you can't ... There's too many, and you're trying to help everybody," she said.

'Going to get better'

Carmen Lopez, 45, can list off the group of family members she left behind: her dad, two sisters, her nephews, her brother, her boyfriend and her dog.

"I think I cried more for my dog than my boyfriend, to be honest. But don't tell him that," she said with a grin.

Communications have been down since the storm, so the only person she's been able to talk to is her brother. Even if she could communicate with them, she doubted they would've moved to Utah with her.

"Everybody has their lives," she said. "They've been going back into their small routines, trying to make things normal again."

She spent the hurricane crammed into the same house with much of her family, which was frustrating at times. But she had mixed emotions when her company told her they could fly her out.

"I don't want to leave my family behind. I feel like I'm abandoning them. But at the same time, I knew I had responsibility at the company," she said.

The lack of communication is the worst part of the disaster, Lopez said. She never knows if her family is doing better or worse. She stopped checking Facebook after seeing so many negative posts.

"Are you doing something to make it better?" is now her focus. Instead of worrying, Lopez said she started talking and shopping with the other displaced Puerto Ricans in the company.

Over and over she tells them, "this is going to get better. This is going to get better."

Many are hoping to take some supplies back to the island near the end of the month.

But the Zurixx employees said they aren't sure when they'll be able to return to Puerto Rico to work. Without power or internet connection, doing online work is impossible.