Puerto Rico Se Levanta. Again

Rubble surrounding the Iglesia Inmaculada Concepción in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, last Tuesday. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
Rubble surrounding the Iglesia Inmaculada Concepción in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, last Tuesday. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

My great-grandmother Syra was 5 years old when the San Fermín earthquake hit Puerto Rico in 1918. Her school day had just begun in Mayagüez when the earth began to shake. She held onto the guardrails and made her way out of the building as the stairs were collapsing. My tatarabuela, or great-great-grandmother, María Ana ran through the still-shaking town to retrieve her. As they reached their home, they saw the sea pulling out into itself. Miraculously their house did not flood; my tatarabuela credited the rosary she hung in her garden. The quake, registered at a magnitude of 7.3, and ensuing tsunami killed 116 people and caused $4 million in damages.

Puerto Rico is now convulsing with a force it had not seen since 1918. A magnitude 6.4 quake that struck last Tuesday morning near Guayanilla, in the island’s southwestern coast, left one person dead and at least nine injured. It also triggered a nearly island-wide blackout, left about 250,000 without running water and toppled structures damaged in earlier quake s.

In all more than 1,200 earthquakes have shaken the region in the last three weeks. Over 2,200 people have lost their homes, and some 6,000 are sleeping outside for fear that their houses will collapse on them at any moment. In five of the six most affected municipalities, preliminary damage estimates total over $460 million.

Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora are still coping with trauma from Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The flurry of earthquakes are laying bare the reality that the government is still utterly unprepared to meet the needs of its citizens. The most likely scenario is that the quakes will diminish in force over the next month. But the United States Geological Survey has not ruled out the possibility that another earthquake of magnitude 6.4 or higher could strike.

In these uncertain days, I have been thinking a lot about my tatarabuela, and how she sought to rescue her daughter from the shuddering earth. I have seen her reflected in the private citizens and nonprofit groups that have come to the aid of our brothers and sisters in the municipalities of the southwestern coast.

Puerto Ricans are traversing mountainous roads in danger of collapse, to get to areas where help has not yet arrived. Some, like a volunteer team from a hardware store, have come to build temporary housing for children. Others have created a website to efficiently identify provisions and distribute them evenly among municipalities. A midwife set up shop in the back of a truck. So many people have come to help that there have been traffic jams to enter the disaster zone.

Puerto Ricans in the diaspora are raising funds from afar in order to support the residents of Guayanilla, Guánica, Yauco, Ponce, which have been hardest hit, as well as other affected towns. They are also organizing politically: Boricuas Unidos en La Diáspora, a Puerto Rican advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., convened a protest on Wednesday in front of the central offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to demand funding to recover from both Hurricane Maria and the new earthquakes.

The outpouring of support, beyond demonstrating the deep compassion and resilient character of Puerto Ricans, is a reflection of a grimmer reality. Many do not trust the federal and local governments to do their job.

Puerto Rico has no official emergency management plan for earthquakes. The geomorphologist José Molinelli, noting concern for the safety of the residents and the volunteers responding to assist them, has said that the southern municipalities should be evacuated. Gov. Wanda Vázquez has said that not a single displaced resident expressed a desire to leave the epicentric regions. In a meeting with the mayors of affected areas, she said that there are “multiple alternatives”, that could be possible, including giving Section 8 vouchers or relocating the displaced to vacant units in Puerto Rico’s Public Housing Authority.

Faced with an ineffective government, we have once again opted not to wait for our local elected politicians or federal officials to help us. But in the aftermath of an emergency, it should not be up to individual citizens and local groups to create structures for disaster relief.

However, the blame cannot be placed only on the local government, which operates within the constraints of its colonial relationship with the United States. At the White House, President Trump has remained publicly silent on the matter. He signed an initial emergency declaration that allocates $5 million for emergency services, but he has not acceded to a request from Governor Vázquez to declare Puerto Rico a major disaster zone. Until then, there is a cap on how much aid FEMA can provide, although it is not a hard limit.

Moreover, the more than $18 billion in federal funding that was allocated over two years ago by Congress in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria has yet to reach the island. President Trump promised Gov. Vázquez the aid would be disbursed quickly, but given his track record it doesn’t look promising. The response is, yet again, a reflection of how little this administration values our lives, a point driven home by recent studies that show how Texas and Florida received a significantly more generous and rapid federal response during the 2017 hurricane season.

In the midst of the mistrust for the governments that oversee us, Puerto Ricans have found solace and support in one another. If the last two and a half years have shown us anything, it’s one truth: We are our own salvation.

Syra Ortiz-Blanes is a Puerto Rican journalist.

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