Still recovering from a devastating 2017 hurricane, Puerto Rico is now dealing with the aftermath of hundreds of earthquakes—and the fear of more to come. The temblors, experts say, could cause even more long-term damage than Hurricane Maria.
Since December 28, at least 29 earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 or greater have struck Puerto Rico. The largest—a 6.4-magnitude quake that hit along the southern coast early Tuesday—killed one person and injured at least eight others. Aftershocks continue, including one that measured 5.6.
Homes and buildings have collapsed, and power and water service was out for up to half a million residents. Fearing aftershocks, many people have fled their damaged homes to sleep outside.
Earthquakes Catch Island Off-Guard
Compared to tropical storms, say authorities, earthquakes are sudden and allow no time to prepare. “There’s no warnings for this,” says police commissioner Henry Escalera. “A hurricane gives us time to plan ahead.” He’s most concerned, he tells CNN, about homes being unsafe to occupy and possibly collapsing.
“With the hurricane, you knew when and at what time it would arrive,” says Tatiana Rodriguez, a resident of hard-hit Guayanilla. With earthquakes, she adds, “You don’t know at what time it’s going to happen.”
Because major earthquakes are relatively rare on the island, “there’s a lot of uncertainty,” says resident Patricia Alonso, as she headed toward a building that had a generator. “This is the first time this has happened to us.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Tuesday’s earthquake is likely to be Puerto Rico’s most damaging in more than a century. A 1918 temblor killed 116 people, triggered a tsunami, and caused millions in damages. Six years ago, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit about 60 miles offshore, with minimal impact.
Human Impact Is Escalating
Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, has declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard but is urging people to stay calm. The consensus from residents, however, is that nothing feels safe. “People are afraid to go to bed,” says Riko Gonzalez, “to then be woken up to worse earthquakes than the day before.”
Another resident, Hector Cruz, describes the aftershocks this way: “My home is like a hammock. It’s like a drill coming from underneath the home.”
Schools are closed, hospitals are being evacuated, and many people are sleeping outside in tents while engineers assess building safety. Though power has been restored to some areas, many are still in the dark.
After a 5.8-magnitude quake in Guánica on Monday, about 255 people gathered in a coliseum to seek shelter. But they ended up in the parking lot when concerns arose about the building’s stability. Waiting in the lot with her 96-year-old husband, Lupita Martinez, 80, said, “There’s no power. There’s no water. There is nothing. This is horrible.” The couple’s caretaker, she added, wasn’t responding to their phone calls for help.“We are confronting a crisis worse than Hurricane Maria,” says Guánica Mayor Santos Seda. “How we are living is horrible.”
Historic Catholic Church Reduced to Rubble
The Immaculada Conception Church, built in Guayanilla in 1841, collapsed during Tuesday morning’s earthquake. Father Enrique Camacho, director of a group affiliated with Catholic Charities USA, says the church was the only house of worship in town to survive the 1918 quake. Now photos on social media show residents removing rubble from the church’s collapsed exterior walls. “That’s really sad because it was a very historical monument, a tourist place,” says Camacho.