The neighborhood of Abras de Guanica has been evacuated after a string of earthquakes caused deadly rockslides. But one woman says she’s not scared and is staying behind.
Guánica, Puerto Rico
Maybe it’s her age, maybe it’s her faith, maybe it’s her love of her house.
Whatever the reason, Basilia Quiles Cruz, 79, has become one of the last residents of Abras de Guánica, a neighborhood in southern Puerto Rico that sits at the bottom of an ominous cliff and that has been turned into a ghost town by the island’s earthquakes.
Officials say more than 7,000 residents of Puerto Rico are now sleeping outdoors or at emergency shelters, after a series of powerful quakes began rattling the island on Dec. 28. Baseball fields, public plazas and empty lots have now turned into buzzing tent cities, filled with those who either can’t go home or are too scared to sleep indoors.
Almost all of Quiles’ neighbors fled her hamlet when aftershocks rained rocks and boulders onto the town. She and one other man are the sole caretakers of the neighborhood, little more than a single road that winds beneath the cliff with houses on both sides.
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“I’m the only brave one,” she said laughing. “There’s another kid here named Pinto and I told him, ‘Pinto, you and I are the only ones brave enough to stay behind. We’re making history.’ ”
Quiles understands why her neighbors — some of them young, others newcomers — might be alarmed by the falling rocks. Last week, during a relatively mild aftershock, a boulder almost crushed a car with a baby inside. Another rock tumbled into the cemetery, smashing several crypts.
But Quiles said the rockslides are simply part of life in Abras de Guánica. She recalls how her father used to curse the mountain every time a stone would roll down the hill and destroy the patio furniture.
As she gave visitors a tour of her house recently, still decorated for Christmas, she pointed to a large rock sitting in the middle of the yard.
“That rock has been there for more than 80 years,” she said. “Rocks have been falling all my life. … That’s just how we were raised here.”
Quiles, who lives alone with her dog, says her family, neighbors and even the mayor have tried to get her to leave. But the thought of being in one of the sprawling refugee camps or staying with her nieces seems unnecessary.
“I trust my house, and I think I’m pretty safe here,” she said of the concrete home where she grew up.
Quiles may be one of the lucky ones. The government estimates that more than 550 buildings have been damaged or destroyed by the earthquakes, and officials put the initial damage assessment at $110 million, but it’s likely to climb.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump signed off on a major disaster declaration for the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, which is still trying to recover from the 2017 hurricane season.
While many residents of Puerto Rico have found themselves traumatized by the earthquake and the daily aftershocks, Quiles seems to take them in stride. When the largest earthquake hit, a magnitude 6.4 on Jan 7, she says she stepped out onto the patio and prayed to God, and her late father and brothers.
“The sound was horrible,” she said. “You really have to see it, feel it, and live it to understand — the house was moving from side to side. It was horrible.”
But not horrible enough for her to leave.
One of her nephews comes by after every good shake to check her home for cracks and urge her, once again, to evacuate. She sees no reason to leave but says she’s always ready.
“All my documents are in order, I’ve got all my medicine and I’ve got a bag with all my things ready,” she said. “Of course, if I have to leave, I have to leave.”
Asked if the rumbling and jolts scared her, Quiles suggested that earthquakes are just part of what makes life worth living.
“I love nature — the sky, the sun, the moon, the rain, the fauna and flora, the plants; everything that has to do with nature I absolutely love,” she said. “But you also have to be cautious.”