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The Puerto Rico earthquakes and the long road to recovery


Imagine waking up in the dark, early hours of the morning. A deep, horrendous noise comes from the earth. Suddenly your house, bed, and belongings start shaking violently. Those few minutes become the longest in your life, as you scramble with your family looking for safety.

This horrible experience happened hundreds of times to the people in southwest Puerto Rico over the past week. While a complete assessment of damages is still being made, more than 750,000 people are without power and 300,000 are without water.

This is a humanitarian crisis that demonstrates how little the island has advanced in its struggle to rebuild since the devastating hurricanes of 2017. And like those disasters before it, these earthquakes once again expose the unacceptably slow pace of recovery and absolutely shameful US federal government response.

A constant fear of what's to come

Between the early mornings of January 6th and 7th, three earthquakes-between 5.6 and 6.4 magnitude-rocked an island still recovering from Hurricanes Maria and Irma more than two years ago. The aftermath continues even today, the result of ongoing tremors between 3.0 and 5.0 magnitude.

The earthquake destroyed more than 100 houses, seriously affected more than 500 others, and caused severe damage to bridges and roads. The island's main power plant at Costa Sur was significantly damaged and could be out of operation for more than a year-another major setback for an island already in desperate need of upgrades to fragile and aging infrastructure.

For many Puerto Ricans, it's like we're back in the moment right after the hurricane. As many community leaders and residents tell us, this constant fear that earthquakes and tremors can happen again is destroying their emotional and mental stability-particularly the elderly and children.

The US must help the island recover and rebuild-now

Troublingly, Governor Wanda Vazquez applied for an emergency declaration that only provides funds for debris removal and shelter assistance. Since Puerto Rican authorities do not have the resources and capacity to attend to immediate essential needs and still do not have an Earthquake Emergency Response Plan, they should apply for the full major disaster declaration that provides aid for immediate needs and provisional housing, as law permits. This declaration must be immediately granted by US government officials.

Meanwhile, federal funds already allocated by Congress for Puerto Rico to support recovery and prevent future disasters have not been disbursed. Vital mitigation funds are practically stalled within the Federal Emergency Management Agency while the Department of Housing and Urban Development continues to withhold funds for disaster recovery through its Community Development Block Grant program.

This is simply unacceptable. This money must be immediately disbursed by the federal government so the island can move forward and rebuild. Congress must also act fast to approve additional recovery and reconstruction funds that effectively help build back Puerto Rican homes and infrastructure in a more resilient way.

A transition from emergency assistance to resilience

Expediting the recovery process is critical in wake of these earthquakes. We continue to advocate for the creation of a Civil Society Task Force to ensure that funds for disaster recovery are spent effectively and transparently to improve the resiliency of Puerto Rican communities.

Oxfam has been working with partners in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, transitioning from emergency assistance to long-term recovery efforts. Over the past two years, we've supported local partners Casa Pueblo and Bosque Modelo in their efforts to provide solar panels and promote alternative energy models on the island. Investing in solar energy will be all the more important in the wake of this humanitarian emergency and damage to the electrical grid.

Puerto Ricans have the right to rebuild their lives in a more secure and permanent way. We'll continue to advocate for their rights and ensure their voices are heard.

Help us continue our work to support a more resilient Puerto Rico.

*The author is a Senior Policy Analyst on Puerto Rico for Oxfam America. Before Oxfam, she was the executive director of the Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia in Puerto Rico for two years as well as the Auxiliary Dean of Students of the University of Puerto Rico Law School for seven years.

Neighbors clear rubble from a house affected by the 6.4 earthquake that struck the town of Guánica, Puerto Rico, on January 7th, 2020. (Nahira Montcourt/NotiCel)