Lakeland officer praised for connecting Puerto Rican families after hurricane

A Lakeland police officer's mission to find his parents after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico turned into a much larger effort to connect people with their own loved ones. Video: Lakeland Police Department

LAKELAND, Fla. -- A Lakeland police officer's mission to find his parents after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico turned into a much larger effort to connect people with their own loved ones.

Officer Javier Perez had been dealing with hurricane clean-up of his own across the city, damaged by Hurricane Irma. But Maria formed with its track toward the Caribbean island where he grew up.

A Facebook post on the department's page details Perez' immediate reaction: once the storm hit and knocked out communications, he like many others desperately wanted to make sure family had survived.

He hit the phones.

"I started calling everyone I could think of; the Navy, the Coastguard, basically anyone who could possibly get me there," said Perez, according to the post. "There was no limit on who I would reach out to. 

"My entire focus was on finding out if my parents were okay."

Perez found out a flight from Florida to Puerto Rico would be taking off, and he jumped at the chance to get a seat. Once on the island and after a snafu with securing a rental car, he caught a glimpse of people he knew.

"When I saw my mom and dad, I lost it for a moment," Perez said. "I was so happy to know they were safe."

But others wanted to know their loved ones same fate, too. Perez wrote on a Puerto Rico-related Facebook post about how excited he was to see his family safe, and now others were asking him for information -- anything at all given the downed power lines and communication.

The officer worked to answer their questions and, while on the island, knock on doors on behalf of people awaiting word.

The Lakeland Police Department's Facebook page received questions, too, but they were directed to Perez. 

"That is my culture and my heritage. In Puerto Rico we are always helping one another without having to be asked," Perez said.

Watch for more on this story at 5 p.m. during 10News This Evening.

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