As the Puerto Rican town of Guánica braces for a tropical storm, the earth shakes again

Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Michelle Morales was washing dishes in her home in the Puerto Rican municipality of Guánica Saturday morning when the earth began to tremble.

She ran outside the home with her three children and her husband, as they always do whenever they feel a strong earthquake.

“We never stay inside when it shakes,” she said.

First came el trueno, “the thunder,” which is how the low rumbling noise that earthquakes make is colloquially known. It can sound like the boom of a bomb, or a truck passing by the street, or a plane flying overhead.

“And then suddenly, the house began to shake from side to side, and it stayed vibrating for a while,” she told the Miami Herald of the 3.4 magnitude earthquake.

Morales, 37, is a resident of Barrio La Luna in Guánica, a coastal town in picturesque southwest Puerto Rico. In late December 2019, faults in the region became active, the earth began to shake and never stopped. Since then, there have literally been thousands of temblors in the region, often several times a day.

But on Saturday, the ground shaking was not Morales’ only worry. Laura is expected to bring three to six inches of rain to Puerto Rico through the night and through Sunday. The south and east of Puerto Rico could receive as many as eight inches of rain by the time the storm has moved away, according to the National Hurricane Center. The heavy rainfall, the NHC says, could bring landslides and river flooding. The storm has maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour. President Trump approved Puerto Rico’s emergency declaration, which Gov. Wanda Vázquez had requested the day before.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has indicated has this hurricane season has the potential to be “extremely active” in the Atlantic Basin. For all of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, the coronavirus pandemic has made storm preparation more challenging for emergency management officials and residents alike. The people who live Guánica and neighboring towns like Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Yauco, and others must also deal with the risk of earthquakes and damage as they make their storm contingency plans.

Saturday morning’s earthquake presented a possible and terrifying scenario: What if there is a strong earthquake during Laura?

“Imagine if there is a tremor of 4 or more in the middle of torrential rain, where are we going to go?” Morales said. “The safest thing is to go outside. But there will be rain. So we can’t put up a tent because the patio fills with rain.”

Barrio La Luna, Morales said, is prone to flooding.

As of early March, more than 8,000 houses had suffered damages from the earthquakes. In Guánica, the town’s mayor told the Herald that 517 houses were slated to be demolished.

Morales’ house has damage from the quakes. She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not approved her family’s application for repairs and funding, but her husband has fixed most of the damage. With subsequent shaking, new cracks have appeared, which they patch as they show up.

Barrio La Luna, multiple Guánica community leaders told the Herald, has been among the most affected by the series of quakes. Morales said that most of the homes were structurally compromised and that there are two entire blocks in her neighborhood in which every house is uninhabitable.

At least one family still spends the night outside their home, and three of her immediate neighbors are living in homes with significant damage. She always checks in on them after temblors to make sure they are all right.

But Morales is positive that they can weather the storm. Managing so many devastating circumstances at once, she said, has prepared her neighborhood for planning for emergencies.

“Since we are survivors, dealing with so many things at the same time, we are ready,” she said.

For years, earthquake experts have warned that under southwest Puerto Rico’s transparent seas, verdant peaks and woodlands lie the potential for deadly earthquakes. The Puerto Rico Seismic Network has noted the region’s seismic activity in its annual reports.

At 4:24 AM on January 7th, mere hours after the island had concluded its Three Kings Day festivities, the sequence that began in late December peaked with a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck south of Guánica, in the Caribbean Sea. The earthquake killed one, left the island without power and at least 250,000 people without water.

By the end of January, there had been over 3,000 earthquakes reported within 20 miles of the 6.4 magnitude earthquake’s epicenter. A United States Geological Survey report said that people in the affected areas will continue to experience daily aftershocks, which will eventually become weekly shaking, which will eventually dissolve into the coming decades as intermittent reminders of the time the earth roared every day.

Coupled with the pandemic, the quakes have presented an impossibly challenging scenario for the municipal authorities in Guánica and its neighboring towns.

In early summer, the Maria L. McDougall School had been certified as a hurricane shelter, even if only one of its three buildings could be used, according to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo(CPIPR.) However, due to damage from recent earthquakes, all the buildings have been deemed unusable.

Rubén Cruz, the municipal director of emergency management in Guánica, said that none of the town’s seven schools could be used as hurricane shelters. According to CPIPR, the municipality, along with Peñuelas, Sábana Grande, Guayanilla, and Yauco were “practically left without schools” after the “quakes disabled more than thirty schools” in the south of the island.

Emergency and municipal authorities then activated the former Franklin Delano Roosevelt School, which closed down in the 1990s but is structurally sound, according to the emergency management director.

It sits on the same street as the infamous Agripina Seda middle school, which collapsed like an accordion during the Jan. earthquake. Guaniqueños acknowledge that a tragedy could have occurred if the tremor occurred on a school day.

By mid-day Saturday, only four people had shown up at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt School, but Laura’s strongest effects had not yet reached the area. Cruz told the Herald that the new shelter can hold up to 50 people, and was equipped to handle Tropical Storm Laura and simultaneous other emergencies.

“There are six feet between each bed, and we give people masks, gloves, hand sanitizers for their personal use. And we also have a tent in the schoolyard, so if there is a significant tremor, we can move people under the carp,” said Cruz.

Santos Seda, the mayor of Guánica, acknowledges that emergency planning for his municipality and surrounding towns is complicated, and the frequent shaking has taken an emotional toll. Since the earthquakes began, government mental-health service teams have been paying visits to town residents.

“This is a never before seen situation; it’s historic, but we are managing,” said Santos Seda. “Our municipal government has done everything possible to manage this crisis, and we just need everyone to do their part.”

As the government authorities in Guánica have prepared for Laura’s arrival, local neighborhood leaders and organizations have been working with their communities to get people ready for the storm.

Team 821, a coalition of 15 community leaders from different neighborhoods in the municipality, formed this year as a response to the earthquakes.

Dagnes López, 47, is a resident of Barrio Fuig and a member of Team 821. On the night of the 6.4 magnitude earthquake, she spent the night at her mother’s house with her kids and pets. She had heard old stories of landslides where her home was located. That night, after the quake, a boulder over 20 feet long demolished her kitchen, and rubble destroyed other rooms. She has been living with her family in her mother’s house ever since.

But the loss of her home has not kept López, who is also a cancer patient, from her work as a community leader. To prepare residents of Barrio Fuig for Tropical Storm Laura, she and a team have visited the neighborhood’s 400-something homes.

She worried that the population, which includes blind, deaf and bedridden people, could be hard to reach in an emergency. Most are not on social media, she said. So López created an online group that includes the children of many of Barrio Fuig’s residents, where she is able to provide updates and get in touch with her older neighbors.

The leader of Team 821, Yeisimar León Martínez, is proud of her coalition’s work and the reach it has across the entire town. During the peak of the earthquake crisis, the organization was able to coordinate relief and aid distribution across some of the hardest-hit areas in Guánica. Their relief and organization work continues to be town-wide as they prepare for Tropical Storm Laura.

Team 821 has identified families who are still living in tents in front of their homes, many of them completely destroyed, and are helping them find housing and providing what resources they need. They are also providing them with information about the available refuges and community centers that are receiving people during Tropical Storm Laura.

The team is also focusing its efforts on building temporary wooden homes. Just this week, the organization built a temporary wooden house for a man who had lost his house during Hurricane Maria in 2017. The houses are designed to withstand tropical storms, even if they can’t withstand hurricanes. For the moment they provide a roof over people’s heads. More homes are in the works for displaced families.

León Martínez, 42, has lived in Guánica her entire life, and she shares Morales’ views, which are those of many other of Guánica’s community leaders: The stream of disasters in recent years has greatly affected the town, but it has also highlighted the resilience of its residents.

But she worries about the government’s capacity to handle all the emergencies and disasters, especially at once.

“I really can’t tell you that Guánica is prepared to receive even a rain shower, because maybe the mayor and the municipality, emergency management, they do as much as they can so the town doesn’t suffer more,” she said, “but Guánica is not going to be ready for anything in many years. In many years.”

On Saturday morning, she was at home with her husband when the 3.4 quake hit the area.

“I said to him, wow this is rough. We have the storm, we have the quakes, we have the pandemic,” she said. “Every time it rains, it breaks my heart, when I think about the people in tents from the earthquakes, the people who have had temporary blue roofs since Hurricane Maria.”