Powerful aftershock and more pain for Puerto Rico

Jim Wyss
Miami Herald

GUANICA, Puerto Rico — Elicier Lugo was evacuating his shattered home on Saturday when he was jolted by a magnitude 5.9 aftershock.

Then he heard a roar from the mountain behind him.

A boulder the size of a jet ski tumbled down the cliff, bounced over a house, broke through a concrete fence and came to rest by the bumper of his neighbor’s car. Her daughter was in the back seat.

Southern Puerto Rico has been gripped by a series of tremors that began Dec. 28 and peaked on Tuesday with a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Since then, hundreds of aftershocks have followed. Many have been imperceptible, but others — like Saturday’s — have caused additional damage and sent people fleeing onto the streets and wondering when the shaking will ever end.

Guanica — a small coastal town on a pleasant inlet — has taken the brunt of the damage. More than 150 buildings have either been destroyed or affected, including city hall and the local school. Saturday’s aftershock – the most powerful yet since Tuesday’s “mainshock” — brought fresh pain. One of the principle bridges into town was closed after cracks appeared in its surface. And in Lugo’s section of town, a hamlet called Abras de Guanica, almost everyone had evacuated as authorities feared the looming cliff would give way entirely.

“There’s only one woman who’s refusing to leave,” a neighbor said. “Everyone else is gone — it’s not safe here anymore.”

On Saturday, Gov. Wanda Vazquez reassured jittery islanders that the aftershocks were to be expected and would likely continue for days or weeks.

More to come? The U.S. Geological Survey also said that the most likely scenario is for aftershocks to continue at diminishing rates and strength for the next 30 days. However, it said there’s a 20% chance of a “doublet” – an earthquake of equal intensity to Tuesday’s 6.4 – occurring over the next month. In addition, it assigned a 3% chance that a larger quake might hit during that time period.

Also Saturday, Vazquez said initial estimates are that 559 buildings have been affected by the earthquakes and that damages could total at least $110 million.

But she said it was a moving target, as some buildings have to be reinspected – and damage estimates reassessed — after each serious shake.

In Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second city, local media reported that the aftershock had broken off the facade of a historic building.

Even the dead haven’t been spared. At Guanica’s municipal cemetery, a massive boulder rolled off the mountain and smashed four crypts before coming to rest on the tomb of Hector Rodriguez “Matango” Echeverria, who died in 2006 at the age of 71.

Despite the continued rumbling, recovery efforts are underway. On Saturday, teams of workers were replacing transformers and powerlines as structural engineers scoured Guanica trying to assess the damage. Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority said 96% of its 1.4 million customers now have electricity, although Guanica and others on the center-southern coast were still largely powerless.

Standing in downtown Guanica, Juan Alicea Flores, the president of Puerto Rico’s Engineering College, CIAPR, said there’s no reason so many homes should have been destroyed.

“I’ve been struck by what I’ve seen, but not surprised,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with building codes here, what we have is a problem with people building informally,” that is, ignoring the codes.

Destruction: The phenomena of shoddily built houses next to sturdy ones has created an odd patchwork of destruction. Perfectly good structures stand next to buildings that have rumpled or collapsed entirely. While two deaths have been attributed to the earthquake and its aftershocks, no one died in Guanica, something Mayor Santos Seda has said is nothing short of miraculous.

Like other towns on the hard hit southern coast, Guanica was a virtual ghost town Saturday. Most of the residents have joined the estimated 6,000 people who are staying at outdoor emergency shelters or have gone to stay with relatives on more stable ground.

William Melendez, 59, had remained behind to help repair a restaurant. When Saturday’s aftershock hit, he stepped outside and watched a house across the street, which had been previously destroyed, start to shake and heave.

“That building over there was moving like it was a toy,” he said. “You just don’t ever get used to it.”

Like others, Melendez worried that Guanica – already hobbled by a decade-long recession and an exodus of its youth – would not fully recover from this latest hit.

“Even the owners of this restaurant aren’t sure they want to come back here,” he said. “The recovery is going to be hard.”

Reinaldo Morales, a local businessman, said the earthquakes might push the town’s economic development back a decade. During January – a month where he might expect to see snowbirds from the U.S. and Canada drinking at the seaside bars – there was no one. The only visitors were journalists and locals coming to snap pictures of the damage.

“The government is talking about rebuilding infrastructure, electricity, roads the bridges, but who’s going to rebuild the town?” he asked, worrying that those who had lost their homes wouldn’t be given the aid to start over.

Whole island rattled: While the earthquakes have been concentrated in the south, the entire island has been rattled.

They come as San Juan is ramping up for one of its largest tourist attractions, the San Sebastian Street Festival, from Jan. 15-19, which usually draws tens of thousands to the streets of Old San Juan.

While power is on in the area – and boosters are trying to keep the island’s crucial tourism industry alive– Vazquez said she was “recommending” that the festival be postponed or canceled. However, she said that decision would ultimately be up to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz.

“We have to set priorities,” Vazquez said. “And my priority is the safety of the people of Puerto Rico.”

As Lugo strapped a couch to the back of his pickup truck, he said he didn’t know where he and his wife would end up. But for the moment he said he was just trying to get away from the rock falls and stay alive.

“We haven’t had peace or serenity for so long,” he said. “I haven’t been able to sleep well in days.”