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‘I don’t feel safe in my home’: Puerto Ricans flee damaged structures, fear more earthquakes

A Puerto Rican flag waves on top of a pile of rubble as debris is removed from a main road in Guánica, Puerto Rico on Wednesday, one day after a major earthquake shook the southwestern coast. (Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Gaping cracks mar the walls, and a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue lies shattered on the floor after falling off its cement pedestal. Jagged tiles jut from the staircase, threatening to slice Belen’s legs as he climbs toward his wife on the sloping balcony.

He filled two buckets with broken wine glasses and shards of painted porcelain, and the couple salvaged and cleaned what they could. It instantly felt like a worthless exercise.

“I don’t feel safe in my home,” Belen said. “Not in this residence. Not in Guánica. Not in Puerto Rico.”

Since earthquakes rocked the island’s southwestern coastline this week, Belen has been living with friends and neighbors, unsure whether the frame on his house would hold, whether the roof would cave, whether another temblor — maybe an even bigger one — would destroy it. This is life in Puerto Rico during the past two years of hurricanes, earthquakes, power outages, political upheaval: unstable.

Puerto Rico earthquake triggers blackout, reports of injuries and at least one dead

Hundreds of families were rendered similarly homeless by the latest natural disaster to upend this island, some because their homes were wobbly and others because they are afraid of what might come next. They were sleeping outside in tents and in hammocks and in cars, hoping to survive should another earthquake hit in the night. Tent cities have emerged in parks, baseball diamonds and parking lots across the pueblos of Guayanilla and Guánica, where the bulk of the earthquake damage is concentrated.

Still reeling from a horrifying hurricane two years ago, many of Puerto Rico’s residents are again in the dark, the island’s crippled power infrastructure again compromised, this time not because of what came from the skies but because of what came from beneath the earth.

The Puerto Rican government, National Guard, private companies and nonprofits arrived within 48 hours with medical equipment, food, canopies and mobile charging stations to keep people connected. Once President Trump authorized a disaster declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready with camping cots, water and blankets for the hardest-hit communities.

FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, Alex Amparo, said Wednesday that the agency has teams in the affected municipalities assessing damage and that officials have met with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to try to develop a timeline for power restoration.

“More than 1,100 people went to the shelter in Ponce. That’s a lot of displaced people,” Amparo said, referring to Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, near here. He pointed to the more-than-half-dozen trucks stocked with food boxes and supplies rolling into a baseball field in Guayanilla. “We’ve learned. You can see here there is tight coordination between local, state and federal officials who are all aligned in this.”

The help has arrived, but the uncertainty again has set in.

PREPA restored electricity to about 600,000 customers — less than a third of the island’s population — on Wednesday. But the progress was offset by news that damage to the island’s primary generation station, Costa Sur, was worse than expected. It could be a year before it returns to full power capacity, and authorities said they were working on solutions. But as long as the earth keeps moving, problems will persist.

“We are in a very tight situation,” PREPA chief executive Jose Ortiz told CBS late Wednesday. The utility had expected to have most customers online by Thursday morning, but Ortiz said bluntly: “It’s not going to happen.”

For Belen and his wife, Nilza Almodobal, they are no longer willing to wait. They are headed to New York to live with family there. They are giving up.

“This is no place for old and sick people,” said Almodobal, who has high blood pressure and diabetes. “It’s been one thing after another, and it’s just too much.”

After Hurricane Maria in 2017, Nidia Nazario developed a taste for warm bottled water, something that came after she lived without electricity for the refrigerator that once chilled it. She has 10 cases of bottled water on hand at all times and a bag full of medications for any emergency. But an earthquake was never part of her plan.

“We need a break,” Nazario said while sitting in a lawn chair under a fig tree in the parking lot of a coliseum-turned-shelter in her hometown of Guánica. “With a hurricane, it comes and it goes. But we don’t know if or when these aftershocks will end.”

She and others of Mother Nature’s refugees here search unsuccessfully for rest on the camp cots, wrapping themselves in Red Cross blankets in the pitch dark. Even when they manage one or two hours of sleep, a low rumble disturbs the peace, eliciting yelps and “Ay Dios mios!” from people in the camp.

“I can’t tell anymore if it’s just me or the earth shaking,” Nazario said.

The displaced townspeople are up before dawn, heading to gas stations or any open shop hoping to buy bread or something else to eat. By midmorning, people return to their homes to find more clothes, salvage belongings or reflect on what they already have lost.

They pack their cars with blankets and pillows and head back to the camp by sundown for another restless night. Not every home in Guánica and Guayanilla’s barrios is compromised, but until authorities can evaluate each structure and the tremors stop, few families are risking it.

Marcial Ríos, who recently completed his undergraduate studies in psychology, was worried that this pattern was wearing down members of his community in Barrio La Laguna. Family after family started setting up camp in a baseball field in the center of the community, with each aftershock destroying whatever sense of security they had left.

After Tuesday morning’s powerful 6.4-magnitude earthquake, the number of families in the encampment tripled by nightfall.

“People are in shock. They are not crying but having panic attacks waiting for the next one,” Ríos said. He grew upset about the constant state of stress and the potentially dangerous consequences, so he called his favorite professor.

Gilda Rodriguez arrived at La Laguna’s camp late Wednesday with a group of psychology students from Carlos Albizu University in San Juan to assess the mental and emotional health of people staying there.

“When Maria happened, it took us almost a week to get there, and by then, people burst into tears instantly in our arms,” said Rodriguez, whose team provides disaster counseling. “But this is different. We got here quickly, but people haven’t had a chance to process their emotions. They are numb, restless and can’t relax until the danger passes.”

If water and power are restored more quickly than the past catastrophe, Rodriguez said, people will be able to regain some sense of stability.

But for Sheiyla Pardy, there is no going back. Her 87-year-old bedridden grandfather’s house was demolished by the earthquake, and she was forced to move the fragile man to a mattress in the back of her SUV.

“I’m keeping it together because my family needs me to be strong,” said Pardy, who is camping out with 10 children and four adults from her extended family. “We’ve learned a lot since Hurricane Maria about how to survive, but this is just something we’ve never faced.”

Corujo is a freelance journalist based in Puerto Rico.