By Shreya Bansal
Starting in late December, a series of earthquakes devastated southern Puerto Rico, forcing thousands to take shelter on the streets, in their cars and in government tents as their homes were destroyed. The situation left people on the island traumatized. At the time, many Puerto Ricans were still trying to recover from the shock of Hurricane Maria, a category five hurricane in September 2017.
When Maria hit, the island was already in the midst of an economic crisis, drowned in $70 billion of public debt. On top of that, the long history of living as a U.S. colony has worsened the natural disasters’ psychological impact. One disaster after another, along with the lack of mental health facilities, has led people to depression, committing suicide or drugs, according to leaders from various non-profit organizations who stepped up to help Puerto Ricans in lieu of adequate government measures.
COVID-19 has only added to the trauma, as the elderly population with a high proportion of underlying health issues lives in fear of getting the virus while also dealing with the economic impacts of the pandemic. Virus precautions have also made seeking both mental health care and community support networks more difficult and complicated.
“It’s trembling every day, every night.”
The largest earthquake that struck Puerto Rico’s southern coast on Jan. 7 registered as a 6.4 magnitude and was followed by a 5.6 magnitude aftershock a few hours after. According to the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, the island has not seen this level of seismic activity since 1918.
Health and Human Services secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency for Puerto Rico on Jan. 8 because of the quakes.
“Having seen your home and knowing that you can’t physically go in there is very traumatizing. You’re physically, emotionally, and mentally tired, and it’s trembling every day, every night,” said Helga Maldonado, regional director of the nonprofit ESCAPE, an organization that stepped up to help affected areas after the earthquake.
Maldonado, along with members of her organization, went door to door to find out how they could help. Mental health services were the top necessity people reported, she said. ESCAPE, along with the Association of Puerto Rican Psychologists and other non-profit organizations, provides free psychological services to the survivors of natural disasters.
“It’s trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma,” said Maldonado. The lack of action from the government left people anxious and helpless, she said. “After all natural disasters, all the societal issues are exposed and it’s basically like you’re undressing the country.”