On Jan. 16, 2020, James-Rodil’s uncle — Roberto Rodil — took pictures in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where several buildings have been destroyed. ((Photo Credit: Roberto Rodil/Used with Permission))
On Jan. 16, 2020, James-Rodil’s uncle — Roberto Rodil — took pictures in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where several buildings have been destroyed.

(Photo Credit: Roberto Rodil/Used with Permission)

Puerto Rico: A Small, but Strong Island (OPINION)

January 16, 2020

Beginning on Dec. 28, 2019, with a M 4.7 earthquake, the residents of Puerto Rico have felt multiple earthquakes and aftershocks for the past several weeks. While in Puerto Rico visiting family in December and early January, I too felt a small, sudden, and quick shake in the town of Utuado.

However, devastation truly encapsulated the island on Jan. 6 and 7 when M 5.8 and M 6.4 earthquakes shook the island “offshore of southwest Puerto Rico . . . as the result of oblique strike slip faulting at shallow depth.”

The 6.4 magnitude earthquake has resulted in the most damage since a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in 1918 which caused a tsunami to hit Puerto Rico as well — the San Fermín earthquake. Ultimately, 116 people died and resulted in 4 million dollars in damages. Residents, now, remember this infamous earthquake and Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in 2017, in the wake of recent earthquakes.

Puerto Rico has “plunged into darkness, again” at one of the worst possible times as there was a recent scandal regarding its former governor Ricardo Roselló, and it is still recovering from Hurricane Maria.

When in Puerto Rico myself, roads were still filled with deep potholes, making driving unsafe and more difficult than it should be. The Grist also states, “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.”

The United States Geological Survey estimates the cost to repair damages is upwards $100 million, yet Puerto Rico is already $70 billion in debt.

Not only has Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, homes, historic churches, and famous tourist attractions, like Punta Ventana, been destroyed, but the people’s mental health has taken a hit as well.

Anxiety is a too often felt emotion amongst Puerto Ricans as thousands are still sleeping outside fearing possible aftershocks, and several families have lost their homes.

Olivia Martinez (’21) says, “Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, and the earthquakes are just continuing to destroy homes. People just don’t know what they are supposed to do; they keep getting hit by natural disasters which causes people to live in fear. They never know when another will hit or what will happen next.”

My family in Puerto Rico, spread out over several towns and cities, have expressed their fear and quick instincts to run out of their homes at the slightest rumble of the ground which they automatically assume is an earthquake. Some of my family members have fled to relative’s homes away from the southwest coast.

It is just not a good time for Puerto Rico. It’s so sad.

— Raquelle Elson (’23)

Yet, this anxiety and fearfulness that has, at present, engulfed the population is not without reason. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) states, as of Jan. 15.,  there is a 4% chance of a M 6.4 or bigger over the next seven days. It has also released three possible aftershock scenarios (last updated on Jan. 14). However, scenario one is the most likely with a 79% chance of occuring: “aftershocks will continue to decrease in frequency over the next 30 days, with no further earthquakes similarly sized to the M 6.4 that occurred on Jan. 7.” Local damage, specifically to weak structures, could occur, and possible M 3.0+ earthquakes may be felt by those near the epicenter and at shallow depth.

This constant uncertainty and fear of yet another natural disaster has prompted people to move to the mainland United States. Not surprisingly, according to the United States Census Bureau, “movers from the territory to the mainland United States increased by more than a third in 2018.” And of the people who moved, about one-third settled in Florida.

“I understand why Puerto Ricans are moving to the mainland United States. They are scared for the future and wonder if their home will be destroyed in the next possible disaster. It’s definitely going to change the dynamic in the U.S. as well,” says Martinez.

In addition, the question of funding — or lack thereof — to rebuild what has been damaged “won’t be easy,” as the Grist explains. In 2017, after Hurricane Maria, $42.5 billion were appropriated by Congress — through FEMA, Housing and Urban Development, and other smaller organizations — to aid in Puerto Rico’s recovery. However, only $14 billion has actually been spent on tending to damages “as of last July,” which several blame the former governor Roselló and President Trump for the delay.

Spanish Teacher Jose Ruano says, “I think our government is not giving them enough money to do what they need to do, but also the government in Puerto Rico is crooked, and that’s the reason why they’re struggling. The money is there, but it is not being used correctly. Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, but it does not get treated the same way as states. They get treated as second-class citizens.”

To add to the doubt which has already accumulated in me and in several Puerto Ricans for quick action from the federal government, again in 2017, Florida and Texas (after Hurricane Harvey) received $100 million in FEMA assistance in nine days — significantly more than the $6 million Puerto Rico received in the same amount of time. 

It is important to note here that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S. and its 3.2 million residents are U.S. citizens, although many fail to recognize the fact. Federal response to attend to its citizens should be quicker, but at the same time, the local government also needs to allocate funds directly to helping its people.

Martinez says, “I feel like many people don’t realize Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens because they are in the Caribbean and on an island, and so they forget they are still a part of this country. We may not be helping them as much as we should. If something happens here in the states, help is ready quickly, but in Puerto Rico, no one is helping as much.”

How long do you think it will take Puerto Rico to fully recover from these earthquakes?

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And, while asking Academy students if they heard about Puerto Rico’s earthquakes, some said “no” or “I don’t know much about them.” This may be due to the attention given to Australia’s bush fires which have damaged wildlife. Maria Garcia Gil (’20) explains this saying, “I definitely think Australia’s bush fires are overshadowing the earthquakes that have occurred in Puerto Rico. It has a lot to do with the fact that Australia’s fires are hurting animals, and people tend to focus on things like that. It makes them sad, and there has been a lot of news about Koalas and other animals getting hurt.”

This lack of attention towards Puerto Rico by some is also due to a lack of understanding of Puerto Rico’s attachment to the U.S. Gil agrees: “I would say that a lot of people don’t know Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its people are citizens.”

Even in the midst of natural disasters and sleeping governments, the heart of Puerto Rico — its people — remain strong, and I have no doubt that the beautiful island which I call my second home can bounce back from all of this. This is my message to them: Puerto Rico is a very small, but strong island. If you can withstand the strength of a category five hurricane, you can also withstand the strength of earthquakes as large as M 6.4.

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