Since Dec. 28, more than 500 earthquakes have shaken Puerto Rico as the island faces what scientists describe as an “earthquake swarm.” Just two years after a devastating hurricane, we now find ourselves in the middle of a new uncertainty that shows no sign of stopping.
It’s certainly true that we should all take time to reflect on our individual preparation, particularly those of us who require prescription medicine or have special needs. But how much of the emergency response are we expected to bear on our shoulders?
Besides carrying gallons of water, solar lamps, canned food, radios and blankets — already too heavy a burden for the elderly and those with disabilities — what else is expected from us? Do we need to procure cots to sleep on when there’s a shortage of emergency shelters? We stocked up on chain saws to clear the roads after Hurricane Maria; are we now expected to procure heavy machinery to clear our fallen homes? Where does individual responsibility begin, and when does it end?
While Puerto Ricans are reproached for not having emergency backpacks — or for living in homes that aren’t properly reinforced — we come to learn that 95 percent of our public schools aren’t built to withstand earthquakes, and that the government didn’t take structural integrity into account when it decided to close a quarter of the schools in the name of austerity. We also learn that public funding for Puerto Rico’s Seismic Network was reduced as part of the fiscal board’s cutbacks to the University of Puerto Rico’s budget, and that there isn’t even a preliminary draft of the public emergency plan that the government commissioned more than a year ago.
On Jan. 6, less than 24 hours before a 6.4-magnitude earthquake shook and darkened nearly the entire island, emergency response commissioner Carlos Acevedo tried to spin away the fact that there was no public emergency plan for seismic shocks, saying that “an earthquake doesn’t announce itself, so the response has to begin afterward … that’s when we activate and reinforce from the outside in.”
It’s hard to know exactly what Acevedo meant by “reinforcing from the outside in,” but certainly the idea that there was no warning of an earthquake is false. Experts have been saying for decades that Puerto Rico sits on two tectonic plates and that some kind of seismic event of great magnitude was to be expected. In addition, residents in the southern coast had been feeling small shocks for weeks before the major earthquake series began, indicating that we were in the middle of a seismic sequence of uncertain duration.
Instead of creating a public awareness campaign about backpacks, officials should have been checking to see if tsunami warning systems were working and if schools and other public shelters could withstand a quake. When we look at the elementary school in Guánica — which was certified as safe after the first 5.8 earthquake but then turned into an open lot of crushed debris on Tuesday — we shudder at the thought of what would have happened at that site if the 6.4-magnitude quake had occurred during class time. How would those students have been served by the emergency backpacks that we’re told to leave by our doors?
It seems as though local politicians haven’t learned a single lesson from the tragedy of Hurricane Maria in 2017 or from the protests of this past summer, which brought down Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. Immediately after the first major earthquake on Monday, while we were being told that we shouldn’t fret about the lack of an emergency response plan, elected officials (as well as a few who aspire to office) mobilized to have their photos taken with survivors in the ruins of the quake. Even the head of the fiscal control board, the entity that has called for closing schools and cutting public budgets in the service of paying our unaudited debt, stopped by the debris to take a few pictures for the board’s Twitter account.
Just as we saw in the infamous leaked chat that brought down the governor, public relations continue to be prioritized over actual governance.
In the absence of government preparation, public scrutiny has turned toward the public: On the airways and across social media, we are told that we build our homes poorly, we prepare inadequately and we respond inappropriately. We are told to run in the face of an impending tsunami, and then we are mocked on the radio when we flee to the mountaintops and the tsunami doesn’t come. They tell us to stay put in our homes and stop sleeping outside, but then they blame us when the walls crumble on top of us. They told us the electricity would be back by noon last Tuesday, and then they’re shocked when we believe rumors and fake news accounts more than the newscast.
Now they chastise us for going “rogue” and bringing aid and supplies to those on the southern coast ourselves, instead of waiting once again for an insufficient government response. Meanwhile, $8 billion is held up in Washington because of presidential whims, and many of those who lost their homes after Maria still wait to get rid of their blue tarps.
They tell us to crawl under a table, stand in a doorway, hide in a closet and cover our heads with a pillow. One government manual even says that in the event of an earthquake, we should yell at the ground and command it to stop shaking. (It claims that this will help calm our anxiety.)
Again and again, they demand resilience from us. They count on the fact that we will become our own support systems, and they depend on us to hold up our families and our communities. They close our schools, shutter our shelters and make no contingency plans because they know that we can count on one another.
The only upside to all this resilience is that it has led us to take stock of what we really need and what we value. The political movement of this past summer wouldn’t have been possible without the networks of support that saved Puerto Ricans after Maria and the lessons we took from that disaster, including the fact that our governor was expendable. It remains to be seen what lessons we will now find at the bottom of our backpacks, and how these unrelentless aftershocks will shift the course of our future.