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As Puerto Rico Reels from Latest Earthquake, Medical Care Reaches Evacuees

Aftershocks continue on the island, and doctors meet patients outdoors in response.


Puerto Rico

Damage from a 6.4-magnitude earthquake is seen in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, on January 8, 2020. (Direct Relief photo)

A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico this week, killing one person and leaving residents, who faced Hurricane Maria just over two years ago, on edge.

Widespread power outages, a lack of running water, and ongoing tremors with the ability to potentially take down more structures are the most pressing issues facing the U.S. territory, in addition to about 2,000 evacuees who have left their homes in the southern part of the island, according to the Ivonne Rodriguez-Wiewall, head of Direct Relief’s Puerto Rico office.

“People are still very scared,” she said, while traveling with physicians and mental health care providers between four shelters around Guayama, Guánica, and Ponce.

“In Ponce, you can see the earth literally cracked.”

Dozens of homes collapsed in Guánica, according to that city’s mayor, and images of heavily damaged structures have emerged from locales throughout the southern part of the island.

“They’re moving into open spaces now, the earth is still shaking,” Rodriguez-Wiewall said.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that over 500 earthquakes of magnitude 2 and above have hit Puerto Rico since December 28, 2019, including a 5.8-magnitude temblor on Monday.

“People didn’t know if it’s okay to drive, so they’re staying together… Authorities are evacuating everyone from buildings, including nursing homes and hospitals, more than two stories high.”

Rodriguez-Wiewall said close to 2,000 people have moved into open spaces and will be sleeping in FEMA and military-provided tents with cots.

Along with hundreds of other structures, yesterday’s earthquake caused damage at three major hospitals in the south, which are being powered by generators. After visiting various shelters, Rodriguez-Wiewall said fear of structural damage and uncertainty about aftershocks have deterred some people from seeking out medical attention at hospitals and health care clinics in the area, making the mobile units and jeeps, donated by AbbVie after Hurricane Maria, key to medical response efforts.

Another resiliency measure — solar-powered water pumps — has also proved to be beneficial. The pumps, which were installed in communities located in the center and southeastern parts of the island with the help of Por Los Nuestros, have held up and allowed locals to maintain access to potable water, which was one of the most pressing issues after Hurricane Maria, and is currently a major concern in the aftermath of the earthquakes, especially in the south.

Shipments of essential medical aid are packed in Direct Relief's warehouse on Jan. 8, 2020, bound for earthquake-impacted communities in Puerto Rico. Requested medicines and supplies have been departing Direct Relief for the island throughout the week as aftershocks continue. (Noah Smith/Direct Relief)
Shipments of essential medical aid are packed in Direct Relief’s warehouse on Jan. 8, 2020, bound for earthquake-impacted communities in Puerto Rico. Requested medicines and supplies have been departing Direct Relief for the island throughout the week as aftershocks continue. (Noah Smith/Direct Relief)

In response to the earthquake, Direct Relief is sending essential medicines and supplies to Puerto Rico to supply 10 medical health provider teams at the request of Puerto Rico’s Department of Health.

Rodriguez-Wiewall said her team’s next steps are to continue planning a hub of medical services in Guánica, which is one of the biggest centers for displaced people, while responding to requests from local mayors.

Comparing this disaster response to Maria, Rodriguez-Wiewall said major improvements have been made with regard to communication.

“We are much more organized now. As soon as everything happened, everyone knew where to go,” she said. “Everyone knows everybody, and everybody has everybody’s number.”

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