Three weeks later, Puerto Rico still experiencing earthquakes
by Kristin Terry
Puerto Rico has experienced nearly 1,000 tremors and aftershocks from the earthquakes which have been plaguing the island since December 28, 2019. As of 12:37pm UTC on January 14th, Puerto Rico has felt 225 quakes of a 3.0 magnitude or higher. On the Richter Scale, a 3.0 magnitude means the quake is able to be felt, but is unlikely to cause significant damage. However, nine of these quakes have been a 5.0 magnitude or higher, which can cause infrastructural damage. The worst of these quakes so far has been the 6.4 magnitude earthquake on January 7th at 8:24am UTC. A 6.4 magnitude quake is considered a major earthquake, and has the potential to be destructive in areas up to 100 miles across in populated areas. The Richter Scale is a logarithmic calculation, which means that every whole-number increase in the scale indicates a ten-fold increase in severity; because of that, the difference between a 5.0 and a 6.4 magnitude earthquake is extreme. According to the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) aftershock forecast, within the next week there is a 99% chance of between 40-210 more 3.0 magnitude earthquakes, a 53% chance of up to 4 more 5.0 magnitude earthquakes, and an 8% chance of another 6.0 magnitude earthquake.
These earthquakes have caused significant infrastructural damage to the island – buildings have collapsed, several areas are without power, and the Punta Ventana landmark was toppled. People no longer feel safe inside, and many have resorted to sleeping in tents outside; they don’t want to be stuck under the rubble if another quake hits and collapses their house. After the 6.4 magnitude quake on Tuesday, January 7th, Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency over the island, calling in the National Guard to help residents deal with the aftermath of the quakes. On Wednesday January 8th, President Trump also declared a state of emergency, and authorized both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to coordinate disaster relief efforts. According to FEMA, emergency declarations can total a maximum budget of $5 million. In events of significant natural disasters requiring more aid, the President must declare a major disaster declaration. Governor Garced submitted a major disaster declaration request on Saturday January 11th; President Trump has yet to respond to this request. In addition, only about $15 billion of the $44 billion in federal recovery funding allocated for Puerto Rico since the devastating 2017 hurricane season has been outlaid, delaying projects and preventing the island from recovering before these recent earthquakes.
As Puerto Rico continues their rebuilding efforts, this earthquake event demonstrates yet another strong example as to why resilience must be baked into the island’s infrastructure and disaster planning. The Puerto Rico Power Authority demonstrated impressive resilience and disaster response in restoring power to 93% of the island after the 5.9 magnitude quake on Saturday January 11th. However, the fact that the island’s power cut off after the earthquakes demonstrates a lack of proper resilience, due at least in part to the fact that the island was still recovering from the 2017 hurricanes. The power lines, which had been rebuilt after the storms, held up under the series of earthquakes, but it was the aged power plants which failed. The lack of resilience in these power facilities is very concerning, especially as hurricane season approaches once more. These quakes have also collapsed several schools, homes, and other key infrastructural buildings throughout the island, all of which will need to be rebuilt. And given the high probability for more quakes to shake the island, along with the current stalling of disaster aid to Puerto Rico, rebuilding efforts will remain challenging and Puerto Rican residents will remain in limbo as the island continues to rattle from these continuous natural disasters.