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Cuomo Returns From Hurricane Maria-Ravaged Puerto Rico, Calls Devastation 'Really Breathtaking'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo headed to Puerto Rico with emergency-response officials Friday to help out with recovery efforts on the island ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

"There are a lot of Puerto Ricans in New York who can't contact their family members," Cuomo said at a briefing before leaving early Friday morning from JFK Airport. "So this is an emotional and traumatic time for a lot of people." 

Carrying backpacks and hard hats, volunteers boarded a plane donated by JetBlue that officials said was the first flight to depart for San Juan since the storm.

"We are honored to support this relief flight, the first of many to come, as the people of Puerto Rico begin to recover from this terrible event," said Robin Hayes, president and CEO of JetBlue. "Our hearts go out to all those impacted."

On the plane with officials and volunteers are supplies, including more than 34,000 bottles of water, ready-to-eat meals, canned goods, 500 flashlights, cots, blankets and pillows, and large generators that Cuomo said can power hospitals and communications centers.

It's the lack of communication that was so difficult for Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who stood Friday with tears welling in her eyes.

"I have not been able to talk to my family yet," the Puerto Rico native. "We need all the help we can get."

Col. Isabel Smith with the Army National Guard hadn't been able to contact her family, either. She relayed a message of love and support.

"Everything is going to be fine," she said. 

When Cuomo returned late Friday night, he said the damage was "much worse" than expected, calling the devastation "really breathtaking."

We need to get our federal representatives to focus on getting the help they need to Puerto Rico and the other eight islands," he said. "They're not going to be able to repair on their own."

But the governor also spoke about the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people.

"These are people who have been battered for days. They went through storm Irma and then the past couple of days with storm Maria. So they've had a long few days," he said. "But I think today said to them you're not alone, you have friends, the connection with New York is very, very strong."

MORE: Carmelo Anthony Asks For Help For Puerto Rican Hurricane Victims

Earlier in the day, Cuomo said New York will deploy National Guard troops and fly Black Hawk helicopters to Puerto Rico.

The New York Power Authority will also send 10 engineers, planners, technical supervisors and translators, along with drones and two drone pilots from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Cuomo said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello asked his New York counterpart for assistance to help the recovery.

"Gov. Rossello didn't have to ask because, in New York, we are family with the Puerto Rican community, and with family, you don't have to ask for help,'' Cuomo said.

A New York City emergency-management team and urban search and rescue task force will also work alongside the National Guard. 

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that 18 firehouses and EMS stations across New York City will be accepting donations for Maria victims.

"New York City stands in solidarity with those affected by Hurricane Maria and many of us are looking for ways to help," he said in a statement. "We're encouraging New Yorkers to donate these critically needed items at a local drop-off site."

Officials say they will be accepting donations of baby food, batteries, first-aid supplies and feminine hygiene products.

"Donations of necessities ... are of utmost importance after any natural disaster, and can help relieve the burden on residents and families who are struggling after the impact of the recent storm," City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, also a native Puerto Rican, said in a statement. "New Yorkers have always helped out our neighbors in times of need, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, we stand ready to provide assistance to Puerto Rico."

FDNY Deputy Chief Robert Carroll said it is important to help, because one in five Puerto Ricans live in our area.

"New York City, we have a big Puerto Rican community that have plenty of relatives down there. So anything we can do to help is good," he told WCBS 880's Myles Miller.

All donated items must be nonperishable, not second hand, nor contain any liquids. 

The National Weather Service reported that the Guatajaca Dam in Western Puerto Rico is failing, prompting evacuations in two towns.

The entire island has been declared a disaster zone in the wake of Maria. The storm knocked out the entire grid across the U.S. territory of 3.4 million, leaving many without power.

Rescuers have transported victims to safety on the back of flatbed trucks. The people of Toa Baja waded through water with what's left of their belongings.

Puerto Rico National Guard Specialist Ricardo Rivera has spent the last two days wading through Maria's floodwaters to bring people to safety.

"We're trying to rescue people in the most safe way we can, but there is still danger," he told CBS2's David Begnaud. "This is really worse than expected." 

In the city of Cantano, neighbors used a kayak to rescue a 91-year-old neighbor trapped in his home. At a shelter, people checked a list of names hoping to find their family members.

"The Puerto Rico and the San Juan you lived in a couple of days is nonexistent, so you're going to be impatient" said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. "I'm concerned about them losing their lives. This is a life-or-death situation. We're not being dramatic."

Reopening the island's ports to receive even more emergency supplies is a top priority.

Friday the Federal Emergency Management Agency began daily flights, bringing food, water, generators and temporary shelters. 

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell that he's been in touch with FEMA.

"Part of the challenge in Puerto Rico is the ability for them to get out and visit the communities, particularly in the more rural areas," he said.

Two major concerns are power and water. But another is whether Congress will offer adequate funding for recovery.

"I am worried that in that process for Puerto Rico, because it doesn't have a United States Senator," Menendez said.

He said he feels the government has an obligation to help.

"Puerto Rico was absolutely obliterated," President Donald Trump said Thursday. "Their electrical grid is totally destroyed and so many other things, so we are starting the process now and we'll work with the governor and people of Puerto Rico."

The death toll across the Caribbean from Maria has climbed to at least 27, including six in Puerto Rico. There were at least 15 deaths in Dominica, three in Haiti, two and Guadeloupe and one in the Dominican Republic.

The Category 3 storm is now churning northeast of the Turks and Caicos Islands with top sustained winds of 125 mph.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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