Is it safe to visit Puerto Rico? The answer is YES.
Despite the recent earthquakes in the news in Puerto Rico, it is safe to visit. First of all, most tourists arrive at the airport in SJU, San Juan, which is in the north central part of the island with a lesser number going to the airport in BQN Aguadilla, which is in the northwest corner of Puerto Rico. The earthquake activity mostly affected the south central and southwest part of the island in Ponce and west of Ponce. You should only be concerned if you are traveling to the south part of the island. Power is on, water is on, roads, bridges, hotels are fine and in normal working order in perhaps 99% of the island.
2020 Puerto Rico earthquakes
|UTC time||2020-01-07 08:24:26|
|Local date||January 7, 2020|
|Local time||04:24 AST|
|Depth||10 km (6 mi)|
|Max. intensity||VII (Very strong)|
|Casualties||1 dead, 8 injured|
At the end of December 2019 and in early January 2020, the southwestern part of the island of Puerto Rico was struck by an earthquake swarm, including six that were of magnitude 5 or greater. The largest and most damaging of this sequence occurred on January 7 at 04:24 AST (08:24 UTC) and had a magnitude of 6.4 Mw and a maximum felt intensity of VII (Very strong) on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale. At least one person was killed and several others were injured.
A 5.8 Mw earthquake the previous day caused the destruction of a natural arch, a tourist attraction at Punta Ventana in Guayanilla. A 5.9 Mw aftershock on Saturday, January 11, damaged many structures, including several historical buildings as well as modern high-rises in the city of Ponce.
Power was lost Island-wide immediately after the quake, and was increasingly restored over a period of a week. Damage to homes was extensive and, by 14 January, more than 8,000 people were homeless and camping outdoors in various types of shelters, with 40,000 others camping outside their homes, just in the city of Ponce only. There were refugees in 28 government-sponsored refugee centers in the southern and central Puerto Rico municipalities of Yauco, Guánica, Ponce, Peñuelas, Guayanilla, Utuado, Maricao, Juana Díaz, Adjuntas, Sabana Grande, San Germán, Lajas, Jayuya and Mayagüez. Damage to government structures was calculated in the hundreds of millions and financial losses were estimated in $3.1 billion. A power plant that supplied over a quarter of Puerto Rico’s energy needs was badly damaged was shut down, with repairs estimated to take at least a year.
The day of the main quake, January 7, Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency and activated the Puerto Rico National Guard and the Puerto Rico State Guard. That same day, she also made available $130 million in aid. The White House also approved $5 million in federal emergency relief. On January 12, the day after the January 11 5.9 aftershock, the governor distributed $12 million to six municipalities most affected by the quake;
Puerto Rico lies at the highly oblique convergent boundary between the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate. A separate Puerto Rico–Virgin Islands microplate has been identified based on GPS observations. To the north the North American Plate is being subducted beneath this microplate along the Puerto Rico Trench. To the south of Puerto Rico the microplate is being thrust southwards over the Caribbean Plate along the Muertos Thrust system. On the upper slope and shelf the current style of faulting is extensional with a series of WSW-ENE trending normal faults, such as the Ponce Fault and the Bajo Tasmanian Fault. Several faults are also known to cross parts of the main island.
The sequence began on December 28, 2019 with a Mw 4.7 earthquake, followed closely by a Mw 5.0 event in the early hours of December 29. Several earthquakes of M <5 occurred over the next few days, followed by a Mw 5.8 event at 10:32 UTC on January 6. The largest event, a Mw 6.4, occurred the next morning, followed by a Mw 5.6 event within 10 minutes and a Mw 5.0 about 15 minutes after that. The Mw 6.4 event had a focal mechanism consistent with normal faulting on a fault trending WSW-ENE. A Mw 5.9 event was then logged on January 11 at 12:54 UTC.
A man died in Urbanización Jardines del Caribe in the city of Ponce as a direct result of the January 7 quake, and eight others were injured also in Ponce. A woman died of a heart attack in the town of Guayanilla after a 4.36-magnitude aftershock hit overnight during the night of January 9 to January 10. By January 10, two additional people had died of medical conditions attributed to the effects of the earthquakes. Financial losses were calculated at $3.1 billion US dollars. Ponce alone had sustained an estimated $150 million in damages by January 11.
On January 13, it was reported that some 3,000 homes had been destroyed or significantly damaged. The January 7 quake destroyed other structures, including the Agripina Seda elementary school in Guánica and the Inmaculada Concepción Church in Guayanilla. Also severely damaged by the January 7 quake were the La Guancha Recreational and Cultural Complex, which was made inoperable and where 24 establishments had to shut down their operations, and Auditorio Juan Pachín Vicéns. The Moscoso Building of the Ponce City Hall was also damaged.
The January 11 aftershock inflicted further damage. Among the structures damaged by this aftershock were the Ponce Servicios municipal government building, Museo de la Masacre de Ponce, Residencia Armstrong-Poventud, and Casa Vives.
There were also rock and landslides. Among damage to infrastructure, the 5.9 aftershock quake the morning of January 11 created a crack in a bridge, and was expected to delay restoration of power. The Costa Sur power plant, which provides a quarter of the island’s power, had sustained “destruction on a grand scale” and estimates said it would take at least a year for repairs to be completed.
There was no electricity in Ponce and in most of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, January 7, the day of the 4:24AM earthquake. “More than 250,000” residents island-wide were left without water and another half a million had no power. Puerto Rico governor declared a state of emergency on January 7 and mobilized the Puerto Rico National Guard. On January 8, the day after the main quake, the Ponce municipal government registered 1,111 residents in city shelters, “not including hundreds more” who drove to government-designated meeting sites, such as Estadio Paquito Montaner, to sleep in their cars. The parking lot at Auditorio Juan Pachin Vicens was also used as a meeting site. The Bernardino Cordero Bernard Vocational High School was also used as a shelter. The night after the quake, it was estimated that over 40,000 Ponce residents chose to sleep in their cars instead of their homes out of fear of more quakes. By January 13 the number of refugees was estimated at around 3,000 Island-wide, but the municipal officials of some local governments believed that figure was probably about right for refugees in just their own single municipalities. Another estimate out the number of refugees at 5,000.
On January 7, the Puerto Rican government made available $130 million in aid. Late January 7, FEMA confirmed that US president Donald Trump had issued a (non-disaster) emergency declaration with a $5 million cap. The $5 million emergency declaration monies were to be spent on emergency services only. On January 12, 2020, Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez Garced made a disbursement of $2 million to each of six municipalities most affected by the quake; the monies came from the Puerto Rico State Emergency Reserve Fund.
On January 10, USGS and Puerto Rico Seismic Network (PRSN) scientists were working to install six sets of temporary seismometers near the southern coast to augment the existing PRSN instruments.
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Prentice and Mann (2005)
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- Hit by devastating earthquakes, Puerto Rico still waiting on billions for hurricane relief: Pelosi calls on administration to ‘cease and desist’ its ‘unlawful’ withholding of funds. Erica Werner. The Washington Post. 9 January 2020. 12 January 2020.
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