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Shaken Puerto Rico rocked again

Lola H. Saydee

Jan. 12, 2020

5.9 quake hits island’s south coast, 5.2 follows minutes later
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A magnitude 5.9 quake shook Puerto Rico on Saturday, causing millions of dollars of damage along the island's southern coast, where previous recent quakes have toppled homes and schools.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 8:54 a.m. quake hit 8 miles southeast of Guanica at a shallow depth of 3 miles. It was followed by several aftershocks, including a magnitude 5.2 temblor less than two minutes later.
No injuries or deaths were reported, officials said.
Saturday's quake occurred four days after a 6.4 magnitude quake in the same area and during a spate of more than 1,200 mostly small quakes over the past 15 days, all at shallow depths.
Gov. Wanda Vazquez estimated damage from Tuesday's earthquake at $110 million, with 559 structures affected. She said her administration was immediately releasing $2 million to six of the most affected municipalities.
Vazquez 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 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."
As a result of Saturday's quake, Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority said blackouts were reported across much of the southern part of the island and crews were assessing possible damage at power plants. Officials said they also were going back to reassess all structures previously inspected, given the strength of Saturday's quake.
Deputy Mayor Elizabeth Ocasio in the southern coastal city of Ponce said that officials closed the city's downtown area and two other nearby areas because of weakened infrastructure.
"One building completely collapsed," she said. "There is a lot of historic infrastructure in Ponce."
Barbara Cruz, a prosecutor who was in Ponce when the new quake hit, said concrete debris hit the sidewalk as buildings continued to crumble.
"Everyone is out on the street," she said.
More landslides and damaged homes were reported, along with severe cracks on a bridge in the southwest coastal town of Guanica, where Aurea Santiago, a 57-year-old resident, said she saw big boulders falling on a nearby road.
"We have been through a lot, but what's important is that we are alive, and people are helping us," she said.
The quake, which initially had been calculated at magnitude 6, was the strongest quake since Tuesday's magnitude 6.4 -- the most potent to hit the island in a century. That temblor killed one person, injured nine others and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and several schools and businesses in the island's southwest region.
More than 4,000 people have been staying in shelters, many fearful of returning to their homes, and others unable to because of extensive damage.
The director of the island's electric utility ordered the temporary closure of the company's largest plant, which crews had been inspecting for earthquake damage.
The ground in southwest Puerto Rico has been shaking since Dec. 28, with more than 1,280 earthquakes, of which more than 100 were felt and more than 70 were of magnitude 3.5 or greater.
NASA reported Friday that the quakes had moved the land in parts of southern Puerto Rico as much as 5.5 inches, based on satellite images before and after the temblors.
Victor Huerfano, director of Puerto Rico's Seismic Network, said that he expects still more aftershocks as a result of the latest large one.
"It's going to reenergize an unstable situation," he said, adding that seismologists are studying which faults were activated. "It's a complex zone."
Saturday morning's temblor sent people outside once again, with many expressing fears that the aftershocks were getting worse.
"This is really screwed up," Jose Nazario, 76, said as he again looked in on his small, two-story house near the center of Guanica. The structure still stands, but the 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 magnitude or greater, but said Saturday morning that the chance of a temblor stronger than Tuesday's big quake was only 4%.
Information for this article was contributed by Danica Coto of The Associated Press and by Patricia Mazzei, Edmy Ayala and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs of The New York Times.
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