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Neither Inside or Out: A Puerto Rican Neighborhood Devastated by Earthquakes Confronts Covid-19

Residents of Barrio La Luna, in the municipality of Guánica, slept in tents, cars, and temporary wooden shelters after repeated earthquakes devastated their community.


Puerto Rico Earthquake 2020

A house in La Luna destroyed by earthquakes. (Ana Umpierre/Direct Relief)

Barrio La Luna, a neighborhood of about 30 houses in the municipality of Guánica, Puerto Rico, has repeatedly felt the force of the earthquakes that have rattled the island since late December of last year.

Most recently, aftershocks in early May – the largest was magnitude 5.4 – caused damage in the municipalities of Guánica and Guayanilla and near the larger city of Ponce.

The quakes devastated La Luna. “We had never experienced a thing like this,” William Ducós, a La Luna resident, told Direct Relief staff in Spanish. “It felt like everything was falling. You could not walk. You could not even move… Everything was dark when I went out and one of the balconies of one of the houses had fallen down in the middle of the road. My neighbors were crying because they had lost their house.”

Direct Relief staff members traveling to the neighborhood in mid-May found that many of the community’s houses had either been destroyed or were badly damaged and surrounded by debris.

“It’s house after house after house, completely collapsed,” said Ivonne Rodriguez-Wiewall, Direct Relief’s Puerto Rico advisor.

Most of those houses were marked with a spray-painted red X, indicating that the house was structurally unsound and people should no longer enter. Less-destroyed houses were marked in yellow, indicating “Enter with caution.”

And a number of people were living in tents or temporary wooden structures in front of their damaged homes. Others were sleeping in cars or nearby parks, or had moved in with family elsewhere – all in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. (The lockdown is now lifting on various aspects of Puerto Rican life.)

Living outside or in cramped conditions was concerning enough during the pandemic, Rodriguez-Wiewall said. “But now hurricane season is starting,” she pointed out. “They cannot be inside their house. They cannot be outside their house. These people are not safe.”

Rafael Gómez Román, a resident of La Luna, built his house himself, beginning with a small wooden structure that evolved over time into a sturdy cement home. His three daughters were born there. When the quakes hit, Gómez’s house was for sale – his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease, needed care and could no longer live there.

Asked about living through the earthquakes, Gómez said, “Painful. In six seconds, losing everything one has.”

Rafael Espinoza Hijo’s house was marked with a yellow X. Espinoza lived there with his father and grandmother until the quakes. In front of the house was a small wooden module where Espinoza’s father, who uses a wheelchair, now sleeps. “We had to make the little house outside…because here it shakes every day,” he said in Spanish.

Espinoza still sleeps inside the house, reasoning that he can evacuate more quickly if needed. And his days are spent taking care of his father. “Now because of the earthquakes, I cannot travel to work because I am taking care of him. It’s not easy,” he said. “[Hurricane] Maria, earthquakes, and now Covid.”

William Ducós poses outside his damaged house. (Direct Relief photo)
William Ducós poses outside his damaged house. (Ana Umpierre/Direct Relief)

Ducós had retired from Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources in December of last year. “I said to myself, ‘Now I have my retirement and my house.’ And then, on January 7, I didn’t have a house,” he said.

Even in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez-Wiewall said, the people affected by the most recent earthquakes aren’t top of mind. “It’s forgotten and the news has already moved on to Covid,” she said.

According to Rodriguez-Wiewall, when the quakes were extensively covered in local news, large numbers of people and organizations brought aid to the south. Between the lockdown and the news cycle, the picture has changed.

Traveling to La Luna to assess the needs of the people living there, she said, “they are just happy…just to have us there and have somebody to talk to. Just to have somebody to listen to them.”

But despite the loss of his house, Ducós was optimistic. “I am a person who tries to help others,” he said. “The important thing is that we are alive. It takes [a lot] to start everything from scratch. We have no other choice.”

Ana Umpierre contributed reporting to this story.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Direct Relief, with support from companies such as Amazon, is providing PPE, tents for triage and testing, intensive-care unit supplies, and equipment such as ventilators and video laryngoscopes to hospitals and health centers throughout Puerto Rico.

The organization is also funding testing initiatives, including in senior care centers and drive-through testing sites. 

Responding to both the pandemic and the earthquake, the organization is coordinating a new telehealth initiative aimed at connecting 200,000 patients to safety net providers.

Direct Relief is also supplying “go bags” for emergency needs to employees of health centers in southern Puerto Rico. The organization is continuing to monitor the situation and is considering further interventions.

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