Puerto Rico Gov Declares State of Emergency After Earthquakes Rattle Island
SAN JUAN — Gov. Wanda Vázquez declared Tuesday a state of emergency for Puerto Rico and called up the National Guard after an early morning earthquake, reportedly the strongest in 50 years, led to an islandwide power outage and caused heavy damage to buildings and homes in the island’s southern region. At least one person was reportedly killed.
The 6.4-magnitude earthquake, which was felt across Puerto Rico and in the neighboring Dominican Republic, struck at 4:24 a.m. (3:24 a.m. Eastern Time) and its epicenter was located about 6 miles south of the Indios neighborhood in the southern coastal municipality of Guayanilla, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Numerous aftershocks, at the rate of at least one an hour followed, including a 5.6-magnitude tremor in the same area at 7:18 a.m.
A tsunami alert had initially been issued after the pre-dawn quake but was withdrawn shortly afterward. As of Tuesday afternoon, close to 50 aftershocks had been registered in the Guánica and Guayanilla region, of which eight surpassed magnitude-4.5 on the Richter scale.
A 72-year-old Ponce resident was reported killed when a wall collapsed on his bed as he was aroused from his sleep by the quake just before dawn.
Buildings and homes in the southern municipalities of Ponce, Guayanilla, Guánica, Yauco, San Germán and Coamo were heavily damaged, particularly structures built on stilts that collapsed. A tower and an outer wall of the Inmaculada Concepción church in the Guayanilla town center collapsed. Several roads in the region, including the main state road 2, were blocked by landslides.
The Damas Hospital in Ponce evacuated patients for fear that they could be injured by the aftershocks. Long lines formed at gasoline stations, as island residents, including those in the San Juan metro area in the north coast, prepared for the worst.
In a late-morning press conference with cabinet officials, Vázquez said the USGS told her that aftershocks could be expected in the next several days, some of which could have a magnitude similar to Tuesday morning’s quake or even stronger. She called on islanders to stay calm and evacuate damaged structures.
The island’s three main banks—Banco Popular, FirstBank and Oriental Bank—remained closed Tuesday. They urged their customers to carry out transactions using ATMs and digital banking services.
“We don’t gain anything with creating hysteria,” she said. “It’s a difficult moment…but we have the resources to face this. This is an event Puerto Rico has not experienced for the last 102 years. We have to be prepared. For how long, we can’t predict,” she said referring to the so-called San Fermín earthquake 1918. The violent magnitude-7.1 event and ensuing tsunami left an estimated 100 people dead.
The governor said the Puerto Rico National Guard’s engineering division will work with the Puerto Rico Engineers & Land Surveyors Association to inspect damage to roads and bridges as well as buildings and homes, and aid in the clean-up of rubble and debris. They will also determine whether damaged homes are safe to return to, she said.
The governor said she created a task force to deal with the emergency that would be headed by a state coordinating officer and include the State Emergency Management Agency as well as commonwealth and municipal agencies. Meanwhile, the federally established Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) for the island authorized $260 million in emergency reserve funding from fiscal years 2019 and 2020 for expenses related to the disaster.
According to the emergency declaration order, the commonwealth Public Safety Department would be in charge of making damage estimates.
Social workers and psychologists are also being sent to the affected area to treat residents who have been traumatized by the quakes and the threat that there could be additional tremors.
Tuesday’s quake follows a series of temblors off the southern coast of Puerto Rico that began Dec. 28, which damaged structures in Guánica, Yauco and Guayanilla, including Monday morning’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake that caused sporadic outages throughout the island and damaged several homes in the area. Damage included flattened automobiles that were parked under houses on stilts that collapsed, as well as downed utility poles and cracked roadways and sidewalks.
Vázquez had visited Guánica on Monday, where she reported that 79 homes had been damaged.
The governor said that 346 people whose homes were damaged were in shelters, including 210 people in the Guánica coliseum.
Seven public school buildings in Guánica were damaged, the governor said, adding that she had ordered the inspection of all public schools before reopening next week. The 432 students enrolled in the damaged schools will be relocated to other schools, Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez said, although he acknowledged that he did not know yet which schools would receive them.
The island’s dams were inspected and no damages were found, the governor said, adding that some 300,000 Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority clients were lacked water service, out of a total of 1.1 million, due to lack of pumping service due to the power outage.
Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) Executive Director José Ortiz said the island’s power grid should be restored by Tuesday night. He said Prepa’s key Costa Sur powerplant in Guayanilla and the privately run EcoEléctrica natural gas-powered cogeneration plant in Peñuelas sustained damages, although he did not elaborate. He said that an aerial inspection found that power transmission lines had not been damaged.
Ortiz said the plants turned off automatically as a self-protection mechanism was triggered by the earthquake.
The Palo Seco plant had powered up three oil-powered units, Ortiz said, adding that three other recently installed plant mega-generators would be called into service to provide energy to critical facilities such as hospitals. Later in the day, the San Juan and Aguirre power plants would be put back in service to restore power to the San Juan metro area. He said the privately run AES Puerto Rico coal-fired cogeneration plant in Guayama would not be back in service until it received a “final certification.”
“It’s going to take time to revise that all power lines can be put into service,” he said. “A good option [for full restoration of the power grid] is [Tuesday] afternoon or night.”
The Río Piedras Medical Center had electric power, the governor said, adding that at least two patients from hospitals in the affected areas were transferred to the trauma facility.
The governor said fuel companies Total and Puma, which have storage facilities in the south, had assured her they were secure. She said there was enough gasoline on the island to last 45 days and enough gas to last 72 days.
While Vázquez said many U.S. governors and mayors had called her with their concerns with the local situation, she acknowledged that there had not been any communication with the White House.
However, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, who requested aid from President Trump via a letter signed by Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency apprised of and working on the emergency.
Public school was set to resume this week after the Christmas holiday recess, but the governor had decided Monday to postpone classes until next week. She said Tuesday that schools would be reopened after inspectors certify they were safe.
The governor had given public employees the day off on Tuesday but said public agencies would reopen Wednesday unless developments dictate otherwise.
Little effect on tourism
Meanwhile, Tourism Co. Executive Director Carla Campos said the agency is still evaluating quake damages sustained by lodging in the island’s south coast.
“In general, there have not been reports of incidents related to injured tourists,” Campos said in a press release. “The Ponce Hilton, Hotel Meliá and the Fox Delicias [hotels] have reported that they have not suffered any type of damage to their infrastructure, while lodgings such as the Ponce Plaza, Costa Bahía and el Holiday Inn in Ponce reported minor damages (cracks [in the] wall).”
On the other hand, the Copa Marina Beach Resort was evacuated on orders of the mayor of Guánica, given the lack of access to the area, the Tourism chief said, adding that the El Morro National Park and Casa Bacardí remained closed. El Yunque National Forest reopened at 10:30 a.m. while the San Cristobal Castle in Old San Juan reopened at 1 p.m., she said.
While most island casinos are open, casinos at Costa Bahía and Courtyard by Marriott hotels in Aguadilla remain closed, Campos said, adding that Ponce Plaza, Ponce Hilton y Holiday Inn lodgings in Ponce will reopen Wednesday at 8 a.m.
The Tourism chief said that airport and cruise ship passenger traffic was flowing “normally” on Tuesday. While three cruise ships were docked in San Juan, the Ports Authority said it was conducting an inspection of its facilities, she said.
“In the case of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, [airport operator] Aerostar reported that they are operating with a generator and they urged passengers to arrive three hours in advance given the high volume of traffic [due] to the holiday season,” she said, adding that the agency will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the safety of residents and visitors alike.