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Let’s Talk About Puerto Rico - What the West Coast Can Learn

Emily Black | JAN 16, 2020

A magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit Puerto Rico on January 7, centered around Guanica and Punta Ventura, PR, followed soon after by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake on January 11.  The governor declared a state of emergency, and earlier this week submitted a Major Disaster Declaration request. Members of the National Guard have been deployed to assist with emergency response efforts. 400,000 people felt the worst of the earthquake tremors, which collapsed a church and several homes near the epicenter, flattened a middle school, destroyed the Punta Ventana arch, and killed at least one citizen.  Engineers explain the school’s collapse might have been caused by the “ short column effect,” a common construction problem seen in other collapsed schools in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela. They noted that the school was on higher ground and wondered if it had been built on unstable landfill.

Punta Ventana (translates to Window Point), one of Puerto Rico's most cherished natural wonders, before and after its tragic collapse last week.
Punta Ventana (translates to "Window Point"), one of Puerto Rico's most cherished natural wonders, before and after its tragic collapse last week.

 The full extent of the cost of the destruction has not been totaled yet, as the second quake hit just as the total had reached $110 million, but experts have estimated a possible $3 billion in damages from the quakes.  This is atop infrastructure issues still awaiting repair after 2017’s hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the area.  While the newly constructed power lines and poles survived the quakes, several aging power stations did not. Hundreds of residents quickly gathered in the temporary shelter set up at the Mariano Rodriguez Municipal Coliseum in Guanica amidst a near island-wide power outage.  Over 4,200 residents total are still in temporary shelter due to fears of yet another possible magnitude 5 or greater earthquake occurring this week.  Immediately after the earthquake, 300,000 PR residents were without running water.  Thanks to the efforts of FEMA and PREPA, the island’s power grid is nearly 100% back online as of 48 hours ago, and food and water trucks have been deployed to the affected areas.

A timeline of the seismic that have rocked PR these last weeks.

The west coast is a particularly seismic region of the USA as it is home to the San Andreas Fault, the Hayward Fault, the San Jacinto Fault, and the Cascadia subduction zone.  Unfortunately, science has not yet found the key to predicting future earthquakes, which is why, when a big one happens, they can be immensely destructive.  The best we can do at the moment is crunching numbers and patterns to guess at the probability of a future earthquake.  So what can west coasters learn in the wake of the Puerto Rico quake?

What can we learn from this tragedy?

What can we learn from this tragedy?

We may not be able to predict when the next earthquake might hit, but that doesn't mean we shouldn’t prepare to be ready when it arrives.  Earthquakes can cause more than broken heirlooms or worse, collapsed buildings.  They have dangerous secondary events as well, such as aftershocks (less powerful but repeated earthquakes like we’ve seen in Puerto Rico), tsunamis, landslides, and fires (from downed power lines or gas leaks).  While the most powerful quakes historically have struck southern California, northern California has the greatest risk of tsunami landfall in the US.  There are 3 basic areas we focus on to keep ourselves safe, and to set our families and communities up for a speedier recovery afterward.

The California Fault Lines

The California Fault Lines

The first thing you can do to prepare is to read up on what to do if an earthquake happens, from modern sources.  For instance, when I was in elementary school, they told us we should get under our desks, or if we were home, to stand in a doorway if cover isn’t available.  The wisdom being that doorways were supposedly stronger than the adobe, brick, or drywall used in most home construction. However, the old doorway chestnut is outdated, because in new homes doorways are no stronger than the walls constructed around them.  Experts now suggest if cover is not readily available, to squat and cover your head with your hands beside an interior wall.   Disaster experts warn that injuries occur most often by objects flying or toppling onto someone.  Redfora has several guides with the latest preparedness information.  Another resource with danger-zone/state specific booklets can be found here, and you can keep up to date on the newest early warning system in development, ShakeAlert, here

The Cascadia Subduction Zone

Secondly, put that information to good use.  Let it inform how you design your family’s evacuation plan by:

Plan and Prepare

Plan, Prepare, Practice

Lastly, focus on what your life will look like AFTER the imminent danger has passed.  If you have been evacuated, do not go into your home until you’re certain there are no gas leaks, and inspectors have deemed it safe for entry.  Once you gain access to your house, take photographs of anything that was damaged to send to your insurance provider before cleaning up.  Check in on your neighbors.  Remain in touch with loved ones, and monitor local news radio stations in case further instructions are broadcast.  Later on, perhaps you can volunteer in the clean up or first aid efforts, check up on your finances, apply for emergency aid, reconnect with friends and family.  Get involved in local policy regarding seismic safety both in new construction projects, and in shoring up older municipal buildings, most especially those that service public utilities or which regularly host children (like schools, libraries, and community centers).  Concentrate on rebuilding not only your home, but also your community.

Rebuilding a community takes everyone's efforts combined.