Puerto Rico wasn’t ready for earthquakes — especially not after Hurricane Maria
It was half-past 4 in the morning when a 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked Puerto Rico on Tuesday, leaving the island at a standstill.
Half asleep in bed, I couldn’t work out what was happening until the whole house began to shift side to side. My parents quickly grabbed my dog and we scurried out of our house near Hatillo, along the island’s northern coast. We’d already established an evacuation plan following the 5.4-magnitude quake that had rattled our nerves just the previous morning, before we opened our presents on Three Kings Day, an important Christian holiday across Latin America.
And just like that, Puerto Rico plunged into darkness, again.
After the quake, 97 percent of the island lost power. I was in the dark, but at least my house was intact. I was one of the lucky ones. Buildings, schools, and historic churches crumbled along the U.S. territory’s southern coast in the cities of Ponce, Yauco, Guayanilla, Lajas, and Guanica. More than a thousand people sought shelter after their homes were reduced to rubble, and at least one person died after a wall in his home collapsed on him.
Wanda Vázquez, who became Puerto Rico’s governor in August following historic protests calling for the ouster of the former scandal-ridden governor, Ricardo Roselló, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday as authorities surveyed the damage to the power generation plants. Many of the island’s power plants are located along the southern coast near the epicenter of Tuesday’s earthquake. The Costa Sur power plant, which generates about 40 percent of the island’s electricity, sustained severe damage.
By Thursday, around a third of Puerto Ricans remained without power, according to CBS News. The current bout of shaking may not yet be over — the United States Geological Survey warns that more aftershocks could be coming. Terrified of sleeping indoors during another tremor, thousands of Puerto Ricans have been sleeping outside in yards and parking lots.
On Wednesday, Trump approved Vázquez’s request for an emergency declaration, which will provide funds for things like debris removal and financial assistance for people who lost their homes. The island’s governor is requesting a “major” emergency declaration that would go even further by funding emergency and permanent work. (The United States commander-in-chief has stayed silent about the disaster on Twitter, preoccupied with the escalating conflict in Iran and his impeachment.)
Even though recovery efforts are on their way, I fear the island where I grew up will never be ready for the next disaster, natural or not.
Damaged homes, deaths, no electricity or clean water — it’s all too familiar in Puerto Rico. The earthquake, the most powerful one to hit the island in more than a century, awoke many unwanted memories of Hurricane Maria, the tropical tyrant that upended life in Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing an estimated 2,975 people and knocking out power in some areas for almost a year.
In many ways, the island still hasn’t recovered. A 2019 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the island’s overall infrastructure a D- grade and its energy infrastructure a straight-up F, calling out inadequate restoration following 2017’s one-two punch from hurricanes Maria and Irma. “Given its location and susceptibility to natural hazards, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure must be more resilient than a majority of mainland America’s,” the report reads. “The need for more resilient infrastructure, coupled with bankruptcy, has led to current infrastructure that fails to meet citizens’ demands.” Case in point: Many bridges and roads on the island that were weakened by the hurricanes collapsed after the recent earthquakes.
Initially, Vázquez and José Ortiz, the CEO of public power utility PREPA, claimed that the electricity would be restored for most of the island in the coming days. But Ortiz told CBS News on Thursday that the crucial Costa Sur plant “will be out for probably over a year.” Many Puerto Ricans are now calling for protests on the grounds that top officials tried to minimize the severity of the earthquake damage on energy infrastructure.
It’s not just the electricity that’s vulnerable: homes are, too. After Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pressured the island to enact stricter building codes, which took effect two months ago. Puerto Ricans were all too aware that aging buildings were vulnerable to hurricane winds and flooding, but powerful earthquakes are a rarity on the island, so they didn’t prioritize earthquake-proofing. Some houses that were recently elevated to avoid storm surge, for example, collapsed during the shakes.
Disaster research experts estimate that the earthquakes could cost the island up to $3.1 billion, including damage to private and public property as well as economic losses from tourism. The United States Geological Survey has a more conservative initial estimate, putting economic losses at upwards of $100 million. Either way, it’s a hard hit for an island already strapped for cash. Puerto Rico is currently about $70 billion in debt.
Footing the bill for recovering from the earthquakes won’t be easy, especially considering the track record of federal aid. After the 2017 hurricane season, Congress appropriated $42 billion to the recovery effort in Puerto Rico ($16 billion through FEMA, $20 billion through Housing and Urban Development, and the remainder through more than a dozen smaller agencies). But only about $14 billion of these funds had actually been spent as of last July. To top it off, the federal response could be on the slow side. While Harvey and Irma survivors in Texas and Florida received about $100 million in FEMA assistance within nine days of the storms’ landfall, for instance, Maria survivors received only $6 million over the same time frame.
“We have not received the reconstruction money that has been allocated for Puerto Rico,” Carmén Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, told NBC News on Tuesday. “I urge every member of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican — this is an issue of justice — to ask and demand that the president of the United States declare portions, if not the entirety, of Puerto Rico a state of emergency.”
Many Puerto Ricans, both those living on the island and in the diaspora, have flooded social media with pleas for support. But they shouldn’t have to rely on the generosity of individuals to save them in the event of a powerful earthquake, a climate-charged hurricane, or any other natural disaster. For the sake of the Puerto Ricans who have lived through catastrophe time and time again, this is an opportunity for both the local and federal governments to finally get it right.