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Deadly Earthquake Rocks Puerto Rico, Causing Mass Power Outages and “Infrastructural Aftershocks”

StoryJanuary 08, 2020
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A 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked Puerto Rico early Tuesday, killing at least one person and plunging nearly the entire population into darkness in a mass power outage. It is the largest earthquake to hit the island in more than 100 years and follows a series of strong quakes that have rattled the island in recent days. A 5.8 magnitude quake struck on Monday, damaging the coastal town of Guánica. Damage from the earthquakes has left nearly 350 people homeless and at least 300,000 without drinking water. Governor Wanda Vázquez declared a state of emergency Tuesday. The devastation comes as Puerto Rico continues to reckon with the fallout from Hurricane Maria in 2017, which killed at least 3,000 and left Puerto Rico in the dark for months in the longest blackout in U.S. history — and the second-longest blackout in world history. We speak with Yarimar Bonilla, a political anthropologist and professor at Hunter College. She is the co-editor of the anthology “Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm” and the founder of Puerto Rico Syllabus, a guide for understanding the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. She says the word “aftershock” takes on a new meaning as delays in infrastructure repairs and electricity revival continue. The “infrastructural aftershocks … are not just about the earth shaking, but really about a lack of preparedness on the part of the government,” Bonilla says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Puerto Rico, where President Trump has signed an emergency declaration after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked the island Tuesday morning, killing at least one person, plunging nearly the entire population into darkness in a mass power outage. It’s the most powerful earthquake to hit Puerto Rico in more than a century.

Hundreds of quakes have rattled Puerto Rico since late December. A 5.8 magnitude quake struck Monday, damaging the coastal town of Guánica. Damage from the earthquakes have left nearly 350 people homeless, at least 300,000 without drinking water. Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez says power would be restored throughout most of the island within 24 to 48 hours. Schools on the island remain closed Wednesday.

The disaster declaration comes as the U.S. continues to hold up federal aid to Puerto Rico for recovery from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, killing at least 3,000 people — although some counts say the death toll is likely much higher. The storm left Puerto Rico in the dark for months in the longest blackout in U.S. history.

We go now to San Juan, where we’re joined by Yarimar Bonilla, political anthropologist at the City University of New York, co-editor of the anthology Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm.

“Aftershocks” has taken on a new meaning, Yarimar, Professor Bonilla. If you can talk about what has happened now? How much electricity is restored? Water? How is the island being taken care of right now?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Well, so, an estimated quarter to one-third of the population has electricity back again, this after they were originally told that the whole island would have electricity back by noon yesterday. So, a lot of folks are frustrated and feeling that this is like an aftershock of Hurricane Maria or just a repetition of it, in terms of government mismanagement, lack of information, problems with infrastructure, and, you know, these kind of infrastructural aftershocks that are not really — not just about the earth shaking, but really about a lack of preparedness on the part of the government, and also a deep fragility and vulnerability that was pre-existing because of Hurricane Maria and the debt crisis and everything that placed us in the path of Hurricane Maria being devastating.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the emergency response of President Trump? What does this mean for the island? Certainly, fiercely criticized for what he did after Maria and the aftermath right through to today.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yeah, well, you know, we’re grateful that he hasn’t tweeted anything offensive about us this time. So, you know, small favors. And it is important that he signed that emergency declaration, although it’s hard to know what that will mean, since we’re still waiting to receive the funds from the emergency declaration of more than two years ago. And that holdup of funds has meant that roads haven’t been repaired, schools that serve as shelters are in disarray. You know, there is a lack of infrastructure and preparedness that is still being attended to from the last climatic event. So, it’s unclear when that emergency aid will kick in. Certainly, folks here are not waiting for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the response of Governor Wanda Vázquez? Certainly a controversial governor, following the ouster of Governor Rosselló. We’re going to turn right now to a clip of Wanda Vázquez, the Puerto Rican governor, declaring a state of emergency throughout the island.

GOV. WANDA VÁZQUEZ: [translated] I have just signed a declaration of state of emergency. We have declared a state of emergency for all of Puerto Rico. We all felt the earthquake, so we all can benefit from this declaration. And we can make evaluations for our municipalities and our residences so we can have a clear picture of what the consequences of this earthquake are. At the same time, I have signed a declaration activating the National Guard of Puerto Rico so the National Guard can assist us in any way necessary. … We have to manage the situation calmly. We are all worried. We are all anxious and nervous. It is natural. We are talking about a situation that Puerto Rico had not experienced in the last 102 years.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Governor Wanda Vázquez. And I also want to read a clip from professor Yarimar Bonilla’s book, Aftershocks of Disaster, where she and a co-editor Marisol LeBrón write, quote, “Since Hurricane Maria made landfall, Puerto Ricans have found themselves relentlessly jolted by the storm’s aftershocks. This happens every time systemic failures are revealed, death and damages are denied, aid is refused, profiteering is discovered, and officials who were not elected by local residents make drastic decisions about the island’s future. … Aftershocks remind us that disasters are not singular events but ongoing processes.”

We just are going right now back to Yarimar Bonilla. The studio that we were talking to her in, in San Juan, has just lost power. Professor Bonilla, we have you on the telephone. Describe the scene right now.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yes. This has become a regular occurrence here in Puerto Rico. We lost power, and the generator, you know, took a hit. So we’re still waiting to get the generator back up.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of word are you hearing from hospitals? The head of the electric company said most have electricity restored, but this is so incredibly dangerous at a time like this.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Yes. I think that part of what’s important to distinguish between now and Hurricane Maria is that it’s a little bit more geographically contained, the structural damage. You know, the epicenter is in the southern coast of Puerto Rico. And I know a lot of folks who have family here are worried about their family members throughout the island, but really it is mostly in the southern coast where people are sleeping outside, having repeated tremors, etc.

In the northern coast, in the rest of Puerto Rico, we are feeling some aftershocks of the earthquake, but it’s mostly infrastructural issues such as this. And the roads are a little bit better here, so we don’t have the problems that we had in Maria of people not being able to get to a hospital and of supplies not being able to get to people. So there’s a little bit — it’s a little bit of a better situation, even though it’s nerve-racking in a different sense, because, unlike Hurricane Maria, we don’t know when we’ll going to get hit again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it there. I thank you so much for you joining us. Again, the studio just lost power in San Juan as we talk about the aftershock of the earthquake. Yarimar Bonilla of CUNY. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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