Governor Signs Disaster Declaration as New Earthquake Rattles Puerto Rico
Jan. 11, 2020
With damage now reaching $110 million, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said she had signed an official disaster declaration asking the federal government to clear the way for additional federal assistance.
She also said the government would impose a consumer price freeze on gasoline, as well as emergency items like water containers, sleeping bags and tarps.
“It’s important that our citizens know that we need to stay calm,” she said at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “This was expected.”
The main highway into Guánica, near the latest quake’s epicenter, was blocked off by the police and National Guard, who raced to the scene after a huge crack opened in the asphalt on a bridge. A traffic jam formed on the perimeter road, which unlike earlier in the week, was full of local fruit trucks and people trying to return to their normal routines.
The temblor, which hit 8 miles southeast of Guánica shortly before 9 a.m., was the strongest aftershock yet in the wake of the 6.4-magnitude quake that hit the island on Tuesday.
Scores of smaller temblors that have rattled the island in recent days, including a 5.2-magnitude aftershock on Friday. Seismologists said they were a sign that the island’s multiple faults may have started activating one another.
With a fifth of the island still without power going into the weekend, Saturday’s aftershock brought new electrical outages to areas around Ponce, Lares, Adjuntas and San Germán in the southern part of the island, officials said.
The Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority had said it hoped to restore power across the entire island as early as Sunday, but the new outages could complicate that forecast.
About 35% of the island’s customers were without power on Saturday afternoon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.
Even if power is restored by Sunday, “there will be little to no reserve capacity,” the agency said.
The federal Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico to help guarantee adequate health care services under federal aid programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
If President Donald Trump signs a disaster declaration, it would clear the way for additional federal disaster aid, including temporary housing for those who have been displaced from their homes.
Across the region, thousands of residents have been camping outside in empty lots and along roadsides, fearful of returning to damaged homes, or structures that could collapse with new aftershocks.
Saturday morning’s temblor brought people outside once again, with many expressing fears that the aftershocks were getting worse.
“This is really screwed up,” said José M. Nazario, 76, said as he again looked in on his small, two-story house near the center of Guánica. The structure still stands, but the series of quakes damaged windows and tiles, broke a dish cabinet, knocked out drawers and broke a toilet. For four nights, he has slept in his Toyota Corolla.
“They say a 7 or 8 could be coming,” he said. “I don’t know. But they keep getting stronger.”
The U.S. Geological Survey has warned of a strong chance of continuing aftershocks of 5.0-magnitude or greater, but said Saturday morning that the chance of a temblor stronger than Tuesday’s big quake was only 4%.
Elizabeth Vanacore, a seismologist with the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, said tremors would continue for at least a few more weeks. A strong aftershock, like the one on Saturday morning, will also cause its own aftershocks, Vanacore said.
The fact that there are multiple faults within and around the island means that one earthquake can activate nearby faults, which Vanacore said may have caused Saturday morning’s earthquake.
“We suspect that we have at least a few faults involved right now,” she said. She likened the high density of faults to a crowded subway car, in which people bump into each other, causing a chain reaction of collisions.
She said there were three possibilities for what happens next. The most likely is that the aftershock sequence will continue, but get weaker and eventually stop. There also is a low probability that there could be another 6.4 earthquake, an event known as a doublet. The most ominous — but least likely — possibility is that Tuesday’s 6.4 earthquake was a foreshock for a stronger earthquake that has not yet come.
“I know everyone is quite afraid because they’ve been feeling earthquakes for weeks,” she said.
FEMA officials said that about 3,500 Puerto Ricans were out of their homes and living outside, while an additional 4,000 were staying in 30 shelters set up in the affected region. Nongovernmental organizations had set up 19 mobile feeding sites.
Last week, Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, along with Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, urged Trump to approve additional federal assistance.
“The localities that are grappling with the effects of the earth tremors are smaller municipalities that do not have the necessary resources to handle the situation alone, and the Puerto Rico local agencies are taxed to their limits by their fiscal condition and the continuing larger recovery effort,” they said in a letter to the White House.
Trump approved an initial emergency declaration earlier this week.
At an improvised aid center in Guánica set up for things like water, toilet paper, diapers and vienna sausages, residents described Saturday’s aftershock and the sense of nervousness that has again taken hold.
José Luis Feliciano, 34, said he was driving when he felt his car swaying “as if three people were pushing against each side.”
Reinaldo Morales, 57, said he had slept for the first time all week on Friday night by leaving his house and pitching a tent next to his car. By the time the ground rattled again, he felt calmer.
“We know we’re safer outside,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .