In the ghostly quiet of an almost deserted office, Gladys Aranzazu wears a look of consternation as she stares into her computer screen, her cell phone pressed against her right ear. She is the consul general of the Colombian Consulate in New York, and she’s been trying to locate a missing woman who hasn’t been heard from since before Hurricane Sandy hit New York.
On Wednesday morning Aranzazu received a call from a girl in Colombia who said her mother lived on the East Side of Manhattan, and she had not been able to reach her mother for two days. Aranzazu immediately began making calls and searching the Internet for people who might have been close to the woman, where she was.
That was just one of nearly 300 calls the consulate received from Colombia as the storm was descending, each asking for help in finding family members who were in the U.S. — and in the path of Hurricane Sandy. The callers were seeking information on a total of 456 people, and according to the consulate, the diplomats were able to track down 325 — and put them in touch with their loved ones.
Power outages in much of New York City and other areas hit by the storm were the main reason so many Colombians were frantic to reach family. That — and the fact that the rest of the world was riveted to pictures of the storm broadcast worldwide on TV and the Internet.
Although the Colombian consulates in Boston, New York, Washington and New Jersey were all shut down on Monday and Tuesday to brace for the impact of the hurricane, the Chancellor’s office of Colombia set up a 24-hour help-line that friends and family in Colombia could call for assistance in locating missing people in New York.
Although less than half of the consulate’s employees were able to make it to work because of transportation closings, most of the employees who did come in were residents of densely Colombian neighborhoods in Queens and New Jersey. They said said that damage in those neighborhoods was minimal and they didn’t have friends or family who had suffered significant damage from the storm. And Ruben Betancour, who works in registration, said, “we were worse off last year because of the snowstorm and the cold.”
But for those in Colombia who still haven’t heard from their loved ones, this is little consolation. Consul General Aranzazu knew that the next few days would probably be stressful and said, “some people have contacted us trying to locate loved ones, but they don’t tell us their names, or the number they give us doesn’t have an area code. And if they don’t call us beck, we just have to assume that they managed to get in touch with them.”