When a 6.4-magnitude temblor rocked Puerto Rico, Minerva Rodriguez was already sleeping in her tennis shoes.
Rodriguez, a pastor at Iglesia Pentecostal de Jesucristo in Yauco, said that, after smaller quakes began to cause damage to the southern part of the island, she wanted to be prepared in case something worse happened.
Rodriguez and her husband headed straight for their car and drove to a site they’d chosen in advance. Neighbors saw them on the move and followed.
That exodus was the beginning of what became an approximately 280-person tent camp in Los Indios, a neighborhood in the southern Guayanilla municipality, where a number of buildings, including a church, were damaged.
The camp became an impromptu community – an outdoor shelter where evacuees of all ages cooked together, sang together and cared for one another for more than two weeks. A nurse who was among the evacuees kept track of blood pressure and other health issues.
A number of the people at Los Indios had fled houses that, while only slightly damaged, no longer felt safe.
“They did not want to return to their homes in case another big earthquake happened,” said Ivonne Rodriguez-Wiewall, a senior advisor in Puerto Rico for Direct Relief, who brought a team to the camp to provide medical supplies.
“What was amazing was that they didn’t know each other but they all worked together,” said Laura Domenech, a pediatrician at Clinica del Sur, which sent a mobile unit to the camp from Ponce to provide medical and mental health care.
Dr. Domenech was particularly struck by a woman who was brewing coffee for other evacuees, using a car battery connected to an inverter. “I’ll never forget her,” she said.
Los Indios wasn’t the only temporary community that cropped up after a series of earthquakes damaged structures and distressed residents, many of whom experienced lasting depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.
Instead, Dr. Domenech said, she came across several communities after Los Indios where Puerto Ricans had banded together – in open places a safe distance from trees and electrical lines – to care for one another.
This wasn’t the case when Maria hit, according to Dr. Domenech: During the hurricane, people primarily sought out established shelters. But the suddenness of the earthquakes – the strongest to strike Puerto Rico in a century forced people to move quickly to find safety. “The earthquake is something that was new to all of us,” she said.
In addition, during the earthquakes, Dr. Domenech explained, some didn’t trust that the official shelters would stand up to the shaking. “What is good for Maria is not good for an earthquake,” she said.
At Los Indios, Rodriguez, the pastor, acted as the community’s informal leader, rising before dawn to prepare coffee, care for evacuees, and plan for community needs. “I couldn’t stop thinking about ways to help my neighbors, our elders,” she said.
After a few days, help – including supplies and medical care – began to arrive. Direct Relief organized a mobile health outpost, with health care providers checking in on chronic health conditions and providing psychological support.
What the people at the camp most needed, Rodriguez said, were mental health providers. “We were all scared,” she said. “When you are scared, you cannot be OK.”
Despite the uncertainty of the situation, Rodriguez-Wiewall and Dr. Domenech were impressed by the sense of calm and community they found.
“Kids were playing around while some adults rested. Others were chatting or playing cardboard games,” Rodriguez-Wiewall recalled. “They [were] all a big family.”
“They knew about other people’s needs, and they would make sure that I went to that person and nobody was left behind,” Dr. Domenech said.
The camp has since disbanded, as the earthquakes grew milder and people began to return to their homes. But Rodriguez is proud of the improvised group effort she headed.
“We built a community,” she said simply. “Our needs were met.”
– Alejandra Rosa Morales contributed additional reporting from Puerto Rico.