Several Rome residents visiting Puerto Rico when a massive earthquake struck the island say it took them by surprise and the aftershocks are continuing.
The magnitude 6.4 quake that struck before dawn on Tuesday killed one person, injured nine others and knocked out power across the U.S. territory. More than 250,000 Puerto Ricans remained without water on Wednesday and another half a million without power, which also affected telecommunications.
In addition, more than 1,000 people were staying in government shelters in the island’s southwest region as U.S. President Donald Trump declared an emergency and Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez activated the National Guard.
The hardest hit municipality was the southwest coastal town of Guánica. More than 200 people had taken shelter in a gymnasium after a quake on Monday, only for the latest shake to damage that structure — forcing them to sleep outside.
Martha Tapia, a retired Berry College professor, has been on the island with family since Dec. 10. She said smaller tremors had been felt since the last week of September but that, unlike with a hurricane, people had no idea the big quake was coming.
Tapia lived in the Mexico City area when a massive quake struck in 1985 — and she said she knows earthquakes.
“That really rocked San Juan,” Tapia said of the 6.4 magnitude shaker that hit Tuesday. “It has not stopped.”
Father Rafael Carballo of St. Mary’s Catholic Church has been visiting family in San Juan, on the opposite side of the island. He’s been feeling smaller aftershocks virtually every hour.
Carballo said he feels “weird from my belly button to my stomach under this stress.”
The Rome priest said the parish in Guayanilla, west of Ponce, was completely destroyed by the quake. He planned to speak with representatives of the church late Wednesday to see what kind of assistance they will need.
“There is no electricity and no water for more than half of the population of the island,” Carballo said.
However, unlike the period following Hurricane Maria in September 2017, ports are still open and supplies are getting in while leaders assess the situation.
Michelle Picon, a Rome resident who still has family in Puerto Rico, said her relatives are on edge.
The earthquake was much more frightening than the hurricane, they told her. People knew about the wind and rain that was coming with Maria, she said, but when homes started shaking violently in the middle of the night “they felt completely helpless.”
The fact that the quake and aftershocks have come so closely after the life-changing disruption of Hurricane Maria makes the situation even more dire for many residents of the island.
“A lot of people suffered for a very long time,” Picon said, speaking of the impact from the hurricane.
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, but does not have the political clout of a state government when it comes to seeking federal aid in response to natural disasters.
Berry College Professor Bruce Conn and his wife, Denise, were conducting mosquito research when the earthquake struck — but they said they were on the opposite side of the island and not affected.
“Puerto Ricans are resilient, but they have been hit hard the last few years by biological, meteorological and now seismological forces,” Bruce Conn said.
Picon said she’s not sure how much more the population can take.
“There is more poverty in Puerto Rico than many places in the U.S.,” she said.
Carballo played a significant role in putting together relief efforts in the wake of the hurricane and said he hopes to be able to direct some local assistance when he returns to Rome this weekend.
While officials said it was too early to estimate the total damage caused by the string of quakes that began the night of Dec. 28, they said hundreds of homes and businesses in the southwest region were damaged or destroyed.
Just in Guánica, a town of roughly 15,000 people, nearly 150 homes were affected by the quake, along with three schools — including one three-story structure whose first two floors were completely flattened.
In Guánica itself, “We are confronting a crisis worse than Hurricane Maria,” said Mayor Santos Seda. “I am asking for empathy from the federal government.”
He said officials believe the homes of 700 families in his municipality are close to collapsing.
Tuesday’s quake was the strongest to hit Puerto Rico since October 1918, when a magnitude 7.3 quake struck near the island’s northwest coast, unleashing a tsunami and killing 116 people.
More than 950 quakes and aftershocks have been recorded in the area of Tuesday night’s event since Dec. 31, though most were too weak to be felt, according to U.S. Geologic Survey.
The USGS said that while it’s virtually certain there will be many aftershocks in the next week, the chance of a magnitude 6 quake — similar to Tuesday’s — or stronger is around 22%.