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Puerto Rico's earthquake shows its government still can't manage a crisis

The earthquakes not only shook the foundations of the buildings, but also triggered vivid memories of Hurricane Maria on the island and the poor management of its disastrous consequences. Español

Daniel Edgardo Adorno-Cruz
15 January 2020
Collapse of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Guayanilla as a result of the earthquake of 6.4 magnitude on January 7, 2020
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Image: Radio Nouvel Horizon

Before the dawn of the celebration of the Day of the Three Kings, Puerto Ricans woke up shaken by a very intense seismic movement in the south of the island. The earthquakes of January 6 and 7, measuring 5.8 and 6.4 magnitude respectively, not only shook the foundations of the buildings, many of which collapsed, but they also triggered vivid memories of Hurricane Maria that swept the island in September 2017.

As on that occasion, the earthquake revealed the lack of government preparedness to deal with these catastrophic crises, and how citizens have once again been forced to take recovery efforts into their own hands. Furthermore, on this occasion the impact of the earthquake on the southwest region has reinforced the existing inequality between the north and south of the island, which the citizens themselves are trying to erase.

After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the fragility of the electrical infrastructure and the lack of effective plans for emergency management on the island was exposed. With the recent earthquakes we have realized that the problems are still there and have even worsened. Poverty continues to plague the population, and the lack of planning alongside government negligence takes on scandalous dimensions given the difficulty of properly assisting the thousands of Puerto Ricans affected by the earthquakes, the most violent on the island in more than a century.

The earthquakes were located a few kilometres off the southern coast of the island. At dawn, Puerto Ricans in the municipalities of Guánica, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce and other neighbouring cities woke up to a scene of collapsed houses, cars crushed by building debris, schools destroyed, and power and water services interrupted.

Throughout most of the island, the direct precursor to the earthquake was the collapse of the energy grid, and many citizens describe being left in the dark just before the earthquake began. Fearing the collapse of the roofs over their heads, thousands of people have been forced to sleep outdoors and even in the parking lots of existing shelters.

This has led to a feeling of insecurity among parents of students in the public education system, who are wary of sending their children to school for fear of what might happen in the event of an earthquake given the precarious state of public infrastructure.

Earthquakes vs. hurricanes

The crucial difference between earthquakes and hurricanes is that there is no warning prior to an earthquake. There is no time to prepare, no chance to issue warnings and anticipate responses for those affected. But while Puerto Ricans already have vast experience with atmospheric events, it has become clear over these past few days that they are not sufficiently prepared for earthquakes. Although school and other organizations' protocols include earthquake simulations, many companies and agencies have had to review their evacuation plans and the state of their organizational structure because of the vulnerabilities discovered in these extreme experiences. In the face of a hurricane, a start and end date can be determined, but with earthquakes, it is not possible to determine when they will occur, and aftershocks make it impossible to know a date when the seismic movements will end, or their true magnitude. This unpredictability factor creates an atmosphere of uncertainty among the population, which results in the country being essentially paralyzed without the authorities conveying the feeling that the situation is under control.

Unsafe infrastructure

There has been a significant amount of damage to some buildings. Among the buildings most affected by the earthquakes is the Agripina Seda School in Guánica, a three-story building, which succumbed to the earthquake and raised serious concerns about the state of the country's infrastructure, in particular the schools.

This has led to a feeling of insecurity among parents of students in the public education system, who are wary of sending their children to school for fear of what might happen in the event of an earthquake given the precarious state of public infrastructure.

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Agripina Seda School destroyed after the earthquake | Facebook: Public Domain

The public has pressured the government to inspect the structural integrity of schools by requiring that they can withstand earthquakes before they are put into service (something that should not even be asked for). On the campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, inspections have also been carried out by teams of engineers.

But students have protested, wanting information about who really makes up these inspection teams and what procedures are used. The College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico revealed that only 500 schools in the country are reinforced against earthquakes, and they urged the government to reveal which ones.

North-South divide

The geography of the island and the design of the road infrastructure has always reflected a marked contrast between the north and south of the island. In the south the climate is more arid and drier, so the largest urban concentrations are in the north, with a much more tropical climate. All over the country there are thousands of abandoned industrial buildings, but those in the south are especially noteworthy, where there are the remains of the oil refineries that once injected much wealth into the economy and were some of the largest in the world in the 1950s.

But after the closure of these huge industrial facilities in the south, most of the economic activity moved to the northern half of the country. This economic and resource imbalance was already worsened by Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes have only accentuated it. This strong imbalance has prevented the mayors of the south from directly addressing the emergency and destruction in their cities due to lack of resources.

As a result of this emergency, social networks have reflected this north-south divide. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the southwest region of the island, while the northern half of the country did not suffer major damage. But it has been the citizens who have managed to overcome this north-south division with solidarity movements and collective action to bring aid and supplies to the victims, so that the affected Puerto Ricans do not feel isolated and abandoned by their government in this time of crisis.

Puerto Ricans have decided not to expect any recovery aid and to take matters into their own hands.

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Thousands of citizens and organizations fill the streets with supplies for the victims | Facebook: Juan Zayas Nuñez

The response to the emergency

Unfortunately, this seismic event has created unsustainable situations that affect the rights of Puerto Rican society, especially related to the right to housing. Many children, women and elderly people have been left homeless, forced to sleep outdoors and hundreds of people who have lost their homes are disoriented and do not know what to do.

The problem is that the government's response has been very slow. Recently we heard Maria Melendez, the mayor of Ponce, one of the southern cities that was most affected, complaining to the press about the actions of other mayors, who were not doing the proper logistical and bureaucratic management to provide the population with basic resources such as water. This questions the level of government preparedness for a sudden event like this and the extent to which the capacity to respond to an emergency is hindered by the senseless bureaucratic processes.

Finally, the Puerto Rican government and President Trump have declared a state of emergency on the island. But Trump only approved $5 million for post-earthquake recovery efforts. This is a ridiculous amount to assist the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have been displaced and are sleeping in the streets. The people in the Island still wait on the White House to sign a ‘major disaster declaration’ that could make available funds for disaster relief. However, Puerto Ricans have learned the lesson from Hurricane Maria.

Faced with the fact that the Trump administration has yet to release $18 billion in congressionally approved recovery funds, constantly citing corrupt politicians as an excuse to withhold the money, Puerto Ricans have decided not to expect any recovery aid and to take matters into their own hands.

This generalized mistrust against the government for the management of this crisis must be translated into concrete political and democratic action.

In this situation, and per usual among Puerto Ricans in times of crisis, citizens have mobilized massively to help their brothers and sisters in the south of the Island. From the donation of primary need items to the provision of professional services and transportation to the victims of the earthquakes, the solidarity response has been overwhelming from all parts of the island and from the diaspora. The Airbnb platform, for example, has activated its "Open Homes" plan to provide free accommodation to the victims and those working in the recovery effort. Volunteer groups have also been deployed to build shelters for victims without waiting for government aid to arrive.

This self-management by the Puerto Ricans, while an important and necessary response of solidarity, should not excuse the government from its inaction. As Puerto Ricans we must denounce the government's negligence in the face of the social and political responsibility that the people have entrusted to them. Even more important, that this generalized mistrust against the government for the management of this crisis be translated into concrete political and democratic action.

As the uncertainty of the strong aftershocks continues and aid and supplies continue to arrive for the victims, many questions remain unanswered. How will a central government, without resources, respond to the humanitarian crisis in the south of the island? When will the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority be reformed to ensure that citizens have a reliable, sustainable and high-quality electrical infrastructure? What will the government do to ensure that these people have a safe home? And even more worrisome, how will the safety of students and teachers in the schools be guaranteed before the new school semester begins? How long will it take to release all the funds for the recovery from Hurricane Maria and now for the earthquakes?

The government's response to these questions is uncertain, but what we are sure of is that with the tenacity of the Puerto Rican people, the solidarity and fraternity that unites them whether it is a hurricane, floods or earthquakes, Puerto Rico always rises.

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