Families say goodbye before boarding the flight.

Story highlights

Spouses and children of federal agents who work for US Customs and Border Protection take flight to mainland

The agents remain in Puerto Rico to help reopen the country's ports of entry to receive supplies

CNN  — 

A plane leaves San Juan, Puerto Rico, filled with Hurricane Maria evacuees who feel they are leaving behind a piece of their hearts. As they look back at their now ravaged island home, some have left spouses, sons and parents in conditions that bring tears to their eyes.

The story on this flight is not just about evacuating from the most devastating storm to hit Puerto Rico in a century, it’s also about the separation of families for the greater good.

The people aboard the flight are the spouses and children of federal agents who work for US Customs and Border Protection. These CBP agents are playing critical roles in the reopening of the airport and ports of entry, which are the lifelines of food and supplies for so many who are in desperate need of food, water, power and communication to the outside world.

Lydia Acevedo, her year-old grandson Mateo and her daughter
Nayelys aboard the evacuation flight.

“Having to separate is not easy, but we have to think positive. We have to think that this will pass soon and we will be able to reunite,” says Lydia Acevedo with tears in her eyes. Her husband works at the airport.

Acevedo says she had to take the role of head of household when the hurricane hit. Her husband was helping everyone else in Puerto Rico and she had to take the lead in looking for food and water for her family.

The DASH 8 plane evacuating Acevedo and 23 other family members of federal agents, and two pets, is normally used for intelligence missions. It’s a twin engine prop plane with giant computers in the back and a cargo area. But Wednesday, the aircraft was on a dual mission in Puerto Rico:

1. Deliver 3,500 pounds of water, MRE’s and baby supplies.

2. Evacuate the family members of CBP personnel from San Juan to Homestead, Florida.

Olga Martinez is 65 and her daughter stayed in San Juan, working at the incident command center. Martinez says she was without power, water and down to one can of corned beef, one can of sausages and some crackers. She yearns for a warm cup of coffee, a staple she hasn’t had in days. She misses her daughter but plans to stay with a niece in Weston, Florida, for now.

On the back cargo section of the plane were Pandylucas and Benjamin, two Yorkies in a kennel. Vanessa Carbia wouldn’t leave her home without them. She’s aboard with her three children, ages 11 to 19. Carbia’s husband is a CBP supervisor and was working around the clock to help reconnect Puerto Rico to the world.

Meanwhile, Carbia says she only had food for four days and was left rationing it, never thinking she would have to evacuate on a flight with other families. With a heart heavy from the devastation and the worry her children would be traumatized, she says she tried to manage her children’s fears and worries while their father was working.

Food and water shortages, she says, were difficult to reckon with.

“When you see children waiting in line for food and water,” Carbia says and pauses. “That was the most impactful.”

Carbia plans to stay in a hotel for now but says she has family in Arizona.

Acevedo faced a mixture of traumas, including her fear for the well-being of the her 1-year-old grandson, Mateo, who suffers from asthma. He was running out of formula, and then there was the heat and humidity and the insects that come with it. Mosquito bites still cover part of Mateo’s cheeks and arms.

Acevedo was on the flight with her 14-year-old daughter, 22-year-old daughter, her son-in-law, 1-year-old grandson and her 72-year-old mother. She has family in Illinois and for now plans to stay in a hotel.

But like everyone else aboard she vows to return to Puerto Rico to reunite with the piece of their hearts left behind.

“My whole life is there,” says Carbia.