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Puerto Rico Earthquakes: What You Need to Know About Traveling to Puerto Rico Right Now

A series of major tremors have rocked the U.S. territory for more than one week. While the island dives into recovery mode, they now depend on tourism dollars to help rebuild.

Though Puerto Rico is located in an active earthquake zone, the island has rarely experienced massive earthquakes. Prior to 2019, the last major tremblor on the island was the 1918 quake that killed 116 people and left thousands homeless. In the last quarter of 2019, the island, still recovering from the extensive damage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, began experiencing a series of tremors that have damaged the southern part of the island.

Geologists have warned that earthquakes are not done yet. The tremors have not only ignited fear and anxiety in locals, but also tourists interested in visiting the island. But according to Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s tourism board, the island is 100% open for tourism.

So far, there haven’t been any closures of hotels or tourist attractions, and the main airport in San Juan, and the cruise ports, are still fully operational. If you’re planning to visit Puerto Rico soon, here’s what you need to know.

What’s Happening in Puerto Rico?

Since December 28, the island has been rocked by over 1,000 earthquakes that have left hundreds of residents temporarily displaced and one resident dead. In the first two weeks of January, the earthquakes became more frequent and more powerful in magnitude.

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Just before dawn on January 7, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake, the most powerful earthquake to rock the island in over a century, jolted residents in the area of Guayanilla, in southwest Puerto Rico. A day before, a magnitude 5.8 quake also struck in the same region. Since late December, there have been 123 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Six earthquakes of magnitude 5 or higher have also struck the island within a two-week period.

The tremors have wreaked havoc in southwest Puerto Rico, an area that is still recovering from the devastation of hurricanes Maria and Irma. The earthquakes have collapsed homes and schools, left thousands of residents without power, and even toppled the natural rock arch Punta Ventana, a popular tourist landmark.

A public state of emergency has since been declared on the island by Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced. She also asked the federal government for additional aid for the southern towns that were directly affected. According to Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, more than 6,000 people were staying in shelters as of January 11, whilst some 7% of the island was without power.

Why Are So Many Earthquakes Occurring?

Puerto Rico is an active plate boundary zone so technically, earthquakes can happen at any time. Since December 2019, however, there has been a huge spike in the island’s earthquake activity, which has caused researchers to take a closer look at what is happening below.

Puerto Rico sits at the edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate, where it collides with the North American plate. Such tectonic boundaries are responsible for the majority of the world’s quakes, so frequent earthquakes in Puerto Rico are to be expected. The Puerto Rico Seismic Network says the latest series of quakes follow a traditional earthquake pattern, in which a large tremor is followed by several smaller aftershocks.

The USGS also estimated that there is a 70% chance another earthquake of magnitude 5 or higher will strike again in January. The chance of a Magnitude 6 or higher is currently 12%. These details may change as researchers continue to establish the cause of the recent activity.

Which Areas Have Been Affected by the Earthquakes?

The major earthquakes that have hit the island in January have left parts of Guanica, Ponce, Yauco, and Guayanilla damaged. These towns are all located in the Southwest area of Puerto Rico. While researches have yet to establish a reason for the frequent activity, the pattern is enough to keep tourists away—for right now.

Following the first week of earthquakes in January, dozens of residents were situated on the streets of Ponce after suffering damage to their homes. Guayanilla has been the worst affected, with the largest tremor, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake, destroying much of the infrastructure in the town.

Where to Stay

Discover Puerto Rico has assured visitors that the island is open for tourism. San Juan, the capital city, still remains tourist-friendly with regular flights, cruise ship arrivals, shopping, street dances, and other events and activities that breathe life into the island.

Amid the earthquakes, San Juan’s cruise port welcomed almost 15,000 passengers from three cruise ships. The capital has no major electricity issues, and all flights to Puerto Rico are operating normally to and from San Juan’s Luis Munoz International Airport, Ponce and Aguadilla airports.

Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Irma/Maria Recovery

In September 2017, back-to-back category five hurricanes, Irma and Maria, hit the island. The devastating hurricanes killed at least 3,000 people and caused an estimated $100 billion worth of damage.

It’s now been two years, and recovery has been slow and practically non-existent in some parts of Puerto Rico. Unnecessary bureaucracy and corruption have been the cause of the lagging recovery efforts that have left many residents still in need.

After the hurricanes, the federal government allocated more than $43 billion dollars for the recovery. Of that money, only $21 billion has been “obligated” for specific tasks, while only $14 billion has been disbursed.

In September 2019, Puerto Rico’s Department of Transportation and Public Works said it hasn’t been able to make any permanent repairs since Maria because the Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t approved the funds. No repairs have been done to damaged bridges, roads, and other infrastructure as a result. Former Puerto Rican Governor, Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation scandal, which fueled over a week of protests, along with other natural disasters have also slowed the recovery progress on the island.

How to Help Locals

With hundreds of people now living in shelters, Puerto Rico needs as much assistance as it can get. Here are some organizations that you can donate to :

Hispanic Federation: The nonprofit organization launched the UNIDOS program specifically for disaster relief in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria.

World Central Kitchen: Founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, World Central Kitchen prepares meals for people affected by disasters.

Direct Relief: The organization offers support to the major healthcare providers across the island. Direct Relief organizes medical professionals to offer medical and mental health services to residents.

AmeriCares: This Connecticut-based nonprofit has been on the ground in Puerto Rico helping the island nation’s health services since 2017.