Over a month after deadly quakes, a Puerto Rican town is still reeling

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

The town of Guánica in southern Puerto Rico is still reeling from a series of earthquakes that began in late December.

The largest — a devastating 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck around 4:24 a.m. on Jan. 7 — was followed by a 5.6-magnitude aftershock a few hours after, and a 5.9 temblor later in the week.

The quake knocked out power across the island. At least one person was killed and thousands slept outside their homes in Guánica and the surrounding municipalities on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

Guánica is one of the hardest hit areas. Over a month after the Jan. 7 quake, the streets of the town remained nearly empty, and damaged homes could be seen on almost every block.

“You can tell on the faces of the municipal employees [in Guánica] that they are not well,” said Helga Maldonado, regional director of the nonprofit ESCAPE.

Although ESCAPE primarily focuses on domestic and child abuse issues, Maldonado said that she and others stepped up to distribute aid after the Puerto Rican central government failed to adequately respond to the disaster.

Hundreds of smaller aftershocks and tremors continue to shake the region. In mid-February, Puerto Rico National Guard members continued serving meals to 350 people at a formal tent city in Guánica. Smaller, informal setups of camping tents could be seen dotted across the municipality.

Marcos Villa Lassala, a 49-year-old fisherman, had been sleeping at the tent city for over a month. His house was damaged by the earthquakes, but fortunately not destroyed, and he visits his home daily to feed his pets.

His family lives in the United States. “I tell them I’m okay just so they won’t worry about me,” he said.

Lassala waited to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, but expects only about $500. After he receives the aid and gets his home straightened out, he plans to move to the mainland United States, following the path of many others who have left Guánica in the wake of the earthquakes.

Although Puerto Rico lies between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, severe earthquakes are rare. According to the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, the Jan. 7 earthquake was the most damaging seismic event to hit Puerto Rico since 1918. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
More than 700 earthquakes magnitude-3 or above hit the region in the first month and a half of the year. 11 of those earthquakes were magnitude-5 or above. (Graphic by Joel Jacobs/MEDILL; data from USGS)
A FEMA official stated that, as of Feb. 21, there had been 1,381 eligible applicants for FEMA aid in Guánica, and that those who were approved got approximately $3,300 on average. For most residents that Marcos Lassala knew, the FEMA aid ended up only covering a small fraction of the cost to fix their homes. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
Houses were inspected using a three-colored system. A green placard indicates that the building is entirely safe, yellow indicates some damage and red indicates serious structural damage or hazards. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
The government established several tent cities in the region to shelter those affected by the earthquake. “There’s a lot of brotherhood,” Lassala said of the community in the camp. “We met each other through an unfortunate situation, but we’re also coming together because we’re happy to be alive.” (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
Puerto Rico’s Department of Health and the National Guard set up temporary medical facilities at the tent city. However, Maldonado said that much of the response, from mental health services to classes for children whose schools are still closed, has been coordinated by citizens and non-governmental organizations. “It’s the community that’s doing this, not the government,” she said. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
The people’s history of discontent with the government could be seen in Guánica. A rusted-out truck tank on the edge of town had been graffitied with the words “Ricky Renuncia,” the rallying-cry that protesters used when calling for the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, the former governor. Rosselló stepped down in August after the protests, sparked by the release of text messages showing the former governor and his allies making misogynistic jokes and mocking constituents. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
Agripina Seda Middle School in Guánica partially collapsed during the earthquake. Schools in the region remained closed as the government rushes to inspect the buildings’ integrity. However, parents have expressed distrust with the government’s evaluations. “[Parents] want them to start class, but they’re also scared that even a small little earthquake or tremor will bring the whole building down,” Maldonado said. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)
The Puerto Rican Agenda, a Chicago-based advocacy group, partnered with Chicago Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García (D-4th) and organized a delegation to tour and deliver donations in the municipalities most affected by the earthquake. State Rep. Delia Ramirez (center, D-4th), who represents the heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, also attended the trip.

Congressman García and State Rep. Ramirez criticized the federal government’s response — only a portion of the over $40 billion in approved aid for 2017’s Hurricane Maria has been released, and an additional $4.7 billion in earthquake aid was passed in the House but has stalled in the Senate. “It is our responsibility to stand in solidarity. It is our responsibility to show up,” Ramirez said. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)

Photo at top: A collapsed home in the town of Guánica in southern Puerto Rico. Hundreds of earthquakes have hit the region since late December, including a devastating 6.4-magnitude quake on Jan. 7 that was followed by powerful aftershocks. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)