Earthquakes in the Time of COVID-19

Puerto Ricans are facing a multitude of tough challenges right now. 2020 has been far from kind to the island and its residents, throwing challenge after disaster after threat at them.

Puerto Rico’s earthquake sequence rumbles on. For a few weeks, it seemed things were quieting down. I’d begun to wonder if it was finally petering out, but then came July 3rd, and two substantial earthquakes that let us know that the southwestern region of the island isn’t going to see an end to the shaking any time soon. And that’s just the start of the troubles plaguing the island.

Many of us are struggling in the face of this pandemic (especially those of us living in countries whose leadership didn’t take effective measures to contain the novel coronavirus, and are now facing ever-increasing rates of infection and death). But being hit with a murderous virus while the earth is nearly constantly shaking, and you’ve lost your home just when you most need to shelter in place, is extra horrible.

The scene in southwestern Puerto Rico’s towns is stark:

The quakes devastated La Luna. “We had never experienced a thing like this,” William Ducós, a La Luna resident, told Direct Relief staff in Spanish. “It felt like everything was falling. You could not walk. You could not even move… Everything was dark when I went out and one of the balconies of one of the houses had fallen down in the middle of the road. My neighbors were crying because they had lost their house.”

Direct Relief staff members traveling to the neighborhood in mid-May found that many of the community’s houses had either been destroyed or were badly damaged and surrounded by debris.

“It’s house after house after house, completely collapsed,” said Ivonne Rodriguez-Wiewall, Direct Relief’s Puerto Rico advisor.

Image shows a pink house collapsed on a car.
Collapsed house in Yauco, Puerto Rico. Credit: maryamarce (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There is unfortunately no sign that the sequence will end soon. Such sequences can rumble on for years, even decades. I highly doubt Puerto Rico’s earthquakes will continue that long, but the next few months will almost certainly be a continuation of the last several.

And as if a pandemic and seismic sequences weren’t enough to be dealing with, hurricane season is coming:

Jose Burgos, Commissioner of Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, who is responsible for all of the island Emergency Management Bureau (PREMB), said he continues to work with all of the island’s mayors to make sure mistakes made during Hurricane Maria don’t repeat themselves.

He also wants to determine the best locations for storm shelters during the pandemic.

“We got remember to remain socially distant even in shelters; for example, places we thought we could shelter 200, can now possibly hold 100,” Burgos said.

He said to make matters worse several shelters were damaged and no longer safe because of the earthquakes.

As if all of that isn’t bad enough, the island still hasn’t recovered from the damage caused by Hurricane Maria:

In Puerto Rico, even basic infrastructure isn’t back to normal. “There’s still plenty of simple things, like traffic lights still aren’t working since Maria. At first – that first year, year and a half, second year – we were like, ‘right, eventually it’ll get fixed,’” says Raimundo Espinoza, founder of Puerto Rico-based environmental nonprofit Conservación ConCiencia, a conservation organization that’s been helping coastal communities bounce back after recent disasters. “But then we kind of just lost confidence in that.” Last year, there were still 30,000 families living under blue tarps that had been established after Maria.

Plus there’s a drought on:

More than 26% of the island is experiencing a severe drought and another 60% is under a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Water rationing measures affecting more than 16,000 clients were imposed this month in some communities in the island’s northeast region.

2020 has absolutely not been Puerto Rico’s year.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Despite disasters both natural and political, Puerto Rico has mounted a very effective campaign against the coronavirus.

[S]everal science-based organizations, experts, and private labs joined forces to ramp up testing. They got creative, and thanks to their efforts Puerto Rico went from the bottom of the list to administering more than 100,000 molecular tests for the virus.

They’re staying on top of it, and the citizens are doing their best to surmount all of the challenges being thrown their way. They’re an amazing and resilient bunch of folks!

If you’re in Puerto Rico and need assistance, FEMA has a good list started here. If you’re outside of Puerto Rico and want to help, you can find ways to assist here.

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