Tuesday's earthquake followed a 5.8-magnitude quake on Monday and was among numerous seismic events along an underwater fault line in recent days. All of them sent shock waves across the U.S. territory amid fears that further tremors could knock out key infrastructure.
The earthquakes struck just months after a scandal involving the former governor set off massive protests and political upheaval. It also hit communities still struggling more than two years after the catastrophic Hurricane Maria raked the island — many homes remain covered in blue tarps where roofs once stood.
"We weren't prepared for something of this magnitude," said Ángel Luis "Luigi" Torres, the mayor of Yauco, a southwestern town impacted by both the storm and this week's quakes. "We weren't even prepared for a hurricane. Now imagine an earthquake."
Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency Tuesday and said authorities were evaluating the damage and inspecting Puerto Rico’s power generation plants — all of which are located along the southern coast near the origin of the seismic activity. She also told government employees to stay home, as more aftershocks are expected.
“There will be other earthquakes, prepare yourselves,” Vázquez Garced said. “This will continue to happen. For how long? We can’t say.”
The Costa Sur power generation plant, located near the quake’s epicenter, was damaged, and millions of people across the island were without electricity. José Ortiz, executive director of Puerto Rico’s power utility, said late Tuesday night that electricity had been restored to 100,000 of the utility’s 1.4 million clients on the island. Officials aim to restore power before the weekend, Ortiz said.
“We’ve learned from our errors of the past,” Ortiz said. “We want to do it little by little, so that whoever gets power will keep power.”
Authorities said there are 300,000 customers without water service. No major damage was reported to dams and seaports, and road damage appeared to be limited to local areas in the southern region. The government is working on powering up three “mega-generators” secured in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
During a news conference Tuesday, the governor said Puerto Rico has not updated its earthquake preparedness plan in more than a century, a reference to a 1918 earthquake and tsunami that killed approximately 100 people and caused severe damage in the island’s northwesternmost towns. Vázquez Garced said the government recently hired a firm to prepare such a plan.
The San Fermin quake of 1918 registered at a magnitude of 7.3 and had been the most disastrous and deadly earthquake in Puerto Rico’s history. Tuesday’s earthquake was the most powerful one near the island since 2014.
Local officials are worried that the unusually strong seismic activity has caught the U.S. territory off guard. The vast majority of public school buildings and thousands of homes, particularly in rural areas where construction is more informal, do not comply with building codes, according to former Puerto Rico state Sen. Ramón Luis Nieves.
Vázquez Garced added that her government had not yet had direct contact with the White House in Washington as of late Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said officials are considering the governor’s request for an emergency declaration.
The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico said it had approved the use of emergency reserve funds from fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to be used for expenses related to the earthquakes, but any local expenditures are sure to strain a government that has been bankrupt and struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria’s wrath.
Tuesday’s blackout raised fears akin to those after Maria, which knocked out power in some areas for months, left some people isolated in rural areas and led to an estimated 3,000 deaths.
“Everything is paralyzed,” Marcos Irizarry Pagan, the mayor of Lajas, a southern municipality impacted by the quake, said during a live interview on Puerto Rico’s local Telemundo station. “I hope this isn’t like Maria.”
Gladyra Archilla, a spokeswoman for the city of Ponce along the southern coast, confirmed that a man in his 70s was killed when a wall in his home fell on top of him. Emergency personnel were trying to rescue one other person in that home who was pinned under debris. Archilla said many buildings in the city — Puerto Rico’s second-largest — were damaged.
Puerto Rico electrical authorities reported damage to infrastructure along the southern coast and said they were evaluating substations across the island. Power utility spokeswoman Edith Seda said the system is designed to shut off automatically in the event of vibrations, and the extent of damage to the Costa Sur plant was unclear.
Seda said crews were working to restore power when safe to do so amid continuing aftershocks. It is possible that certain sectors will see electricity earlier than others; generators are powering the island’s primary hospital, Centro Médico. San Juan’s international airport is operational, officials said.
The bulk of the earthquake damage was in the southern coastal region, from Ponce west to the municipalities of Yauco, Guayanilla, Lajas and Guanica.
In the southwestern town of Yauco, 32 houses collapsed. More than 100 apartment units were left uninhabitable, and hundreds of other homes were potentially unsafe, according to Torres, the mayor. Nearly 400 people were forced to evacuate their homes and have sought shelter beneath tents in a large parking lot.
A hospital evacuated all 80 of its patients, who were awaiting air-conditioned tents from the National Guard on Tuesday, Torres said.
In Guanica, at least 180 people sought shelter at the Coliseum Mariano “Tito” Rodríguez on Monday after the 5.8-magnitude quake, which struck Puerto Rico the morning of Three Kings Day, normally a festive occasion on the island. But after Tuesday’s earthquake, the coliseum was evacuated due to fears of damage to the structure, said Zulma Bracero Martínez, Guanica’s municipality administrator.
Families instead have been gathering in the coliseum’s parking lot. Among them was Noelia De Jesús, 69, who stood in the middle of the lot with her husband, Francisco Ramos, 72, who was using a wheelchair.
The couple sought refuge after a house in front of theirs collapsed in Monday’s quake. Feeling unsafe in their home, Ramos and De Jesús boarded a bus to the coliseum. But then, at 4:24 a.m. Tuesday, the 6.4-magnitude temblor sent lightbulbs from the building’s ceiling crashing to the floor. De Jesús lost her balance. A stroller toppled with her granddaughter inside.
“I thought we were going to die,” De Jesús said.
The situation brings back terrible memories for them. Two decades ago, Hurricane George damaged their home. After Hurricane Maria, the couple lived in a shelter for nearly a year.
“It’s been so hard,” De Jesús said.
Hundreds of small temblors have been rattling nerves on the island archipelago since Dec. 28. Scientists described the island as being “squeezed” by two major faults known as subduction zones, where tectonic plates dive beneath one another. The biggest of those subduction zones is to the north of the island and could potentially deliver a catastrophic earthquake with a magnitude of 7 or greater.
The two strongest earthquakes this week happened on an unmapped offshore “intraplate” fault just south of the island, according to Gavin Hayes, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist. The epicenters were just a few miles apart. This was a relatively unusual “foreshock sequence,” in which a moderate earthquake was followed by a major one.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that both earthquakes could prove to be foreshocks of an even more violent event. The unstable fault has generated nearly two dozen earthquakes that registered as magnitude 3 or greater in recent weeks. USGS calculates that there is a 9 percent chance of a magnitude 6.4 or greater tremor along the fault in the next week, and a 22 percent chance of a magnitude 6 or higher.
USGS geophysicist John Bellini said he believes the 6.4 quake was “the peak of the pressure,” but aftershocks can be dangerous.
U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the committee that oversees U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, urged the Trump administration to release remaining federal disaster recovery funds from Hurricane Maria and deliver new aid quickly.
“The Trump administration’s indifference and incompetence have already cost residents of Puerto Rico their lives and their livelihoods, and continuing that pattern now is completely unacceptable,” Grijalva said in a statement. “I urge this administration to remember that lives are at stake and the public is watching.”
Like many Puerto Ricans, Yaritza Llabreras experienced that loss of life firsthand from Hurricane Maria, after which she lost two grandparents. Now she is worried for her grandmother, Rosa Colón, who has Alzheimer’s and has been bedridden for two years. After this week’s earthquakes, the Llabreras family went to rescue Colón in Guanica.
“When we got to the house, she didn’t look well,” Llabreras, 24, said, noting that her grandmother is now receiving medical treatment. But Llabreras is considering leaving the island.
“If this continues, I don’t know where are we going to end up,” she said.
Jan. 8, 2020 | Products are scattered throughout a shop after an earthquake in Guanica, Puerto Rico. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
The scene after two strong earthquakes strike Puerto Rico
Corujo is a freelance journalist based in Puerto Rico. Hernández reported from San Antonio and Schmidt reported from Washington. Joel Achenbach and Jeff Stein in Washington contributed to this report.