Earthquakes Remain a Constant Threat
On December 28, 2019 Puerto Rico began to experience a series of earthquakes. These quakes have persisted since, with the largest two occurring on January 6, 2020 (5.9 magnitude) and on January 7th (6.4 magnitude). These quakes are the most damaging to strike the island since 1918, killing one and causing an island-wide blackout.
Since December 2019, Puerto Rico - particularly the southern portion of the island, has been experiencing daily earthquakes and aftershocks. For example, 487 earthquakes were recorded between January 10th and January 16th, 2020 - including many which were over a magnitude of 3.5. However, many of these quakes are not felt in the northern portion of the island.
487 earthquakes recorded from January 10 - January 16, 2020
Puerto Rico has remained in a State of Emergency since January 6th, 2020. Aftershocks occur daily, some being magnitudes of 4 and greater. On January 16th, 2020, President Trump approved a major Disaster Declaration for the southern regions of Puerto Rico, including the municipalities of Guánica, Guayanilla, Penuelas, Ponce, Utuado, and Yauco. The President has since amended the major Disaster Declaration to include the municipalities of Adjuntas, Cabo Rojo, Corozal, Jayuya, Lajas, Lares, Maricao, San Germán, San Sebastián, and Villalba. The approval of the disaster declaration will allow additional federal resources to support the ongoing response and eventual recovery efforts.
Why Should Organizations Care about Earthquake Risk?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) illuminates the importance of caring about earthquake risks by denoting impacts on organizations within communities. By taking action to protect employees, customers, and the business community as a whole, the economy of affected areas can remain stable, thus promoting a faster recovery and easier mitigation.
Following a natural disaster, approximately 40 percent of small businesses will not reopen; one year later, 25 percent of small businesses will close; and three years later, 75 percent of businesses without a continuity plan will completely fail.
Natural disaster effects can have lasting impacts without intervention, highlighting the importance of preparedness and mitigation plans. Furthermore, small businesses account for 99 percent of all companies and employ 50 percent of all private-sector employees.
These statistics are important, as many child care programs are small businesses. Further, many early childhood programs - whether they be private centers, Early Head Start or Head Start programs operate in leased spaces. As we have seen throughout the United States, landlords (who usually are small businesses) determine when buildings get fixed and early childhood programs can reopen. Ensuring that both your program and your landlord are disaster-ready is very important.
In order to instill resilience in the community following an earthquake, FEMA developed the Quakesmart Community Resilience Program for organizational leaders to complete a step-by-step process so that they may protect assets, sustain the ability to provide goods and services, preserve competitive advantage, and provide the ability to fulfill standing obligations to the community.
The program focuses on STAFF, SPACE, SYSTEMS, STRUCTURE, AND SERVICE.
STAFF includes planning and preparedness activities for staff members.
SPACE includes the contents of a workspace.
SYSTEMS includes utility systems and nonstructural architectural elements.
STRUCTURE includes architectural and structural elements of buildings.
SERVICE includes opportunities for an organization to engage and serve the community following an event.
The program outlines four steps to ensure the five tiers above can be achieved. The steps are as follows: identify your risk, develop a plan, take action, and be recognized and inspire others. These simple steps, along with FEMA’s Business Continuity Plan and the Disaster Resistant Business (DRB) Toolkit, can provide a successful start to recovery.
Afraid to Go Home, Send Children to School
As earthquakes remain a daily threat, it is impossible to begin recovery efforts. School and government officials, as well as citizens and private business owners, have had a difficult time determining which buildings are potentially safe to resume activities. With each new earthquake/aftershock, buildings need to be reassessed, thereby delaying a return to normalcy.
Further, the ongoing threat has impacted families across the southern region. At least 10,000 displaced individuals are living outside, many in tents. They fear the next earthquake or aftershock may cause the collapse of their home - so sleeping outside is viewed as a safer alternative. These ‘tent cities’ as they are being called - come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and support. Some are organized by local governments, others are staffed by members of the National Guard/military and others are community or neighborhood-based efforts.
Assets of the U.S. Army reserve from Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico have been activated to support relief and recovery efforts on the island. Around 150 soldiers have been deployed to provide laundry and shower services for civilians at five locations along the southern coast, where earthquakes have been clustered. The locations include Ponce, Peñuelas, Yauco, Guanica, and Guayanilla, which are each capable of holding 1,000 to 1,500 people. Each facility has laundry systems capable of washing 400 pounds of laundry per cycle, as well as two shower systems capable of accommodating 500 people per day to ensure proper hygiene and prevent disease-spread.
Impact on Early Childhood
We have met with many of the early childhood serving institutions in Puerto Rico since the quakes began. The majority in the southern region remain closed. Some have set target dates for when they hope to be reopened, but these dates are largely dependent on whether or not the quakes continue - and, of course, dependent on approval from a structural engineer.
These approvals will be extremely important as communities are especially concerned about giving the ‘all clear’ until these quakes have subsided. These fears have been substantiated - as a middle school in Guanica did suffer extensive damage and partial collapse after one of the earthquakes. Luckily, the earthquake occurred in the early morning hours, when the school was vacant. One can only imagine the horror if the quake would have hit during school hours. This particular school was located adjacent to a Head Start program.
Parents are understandably hesitant to put their children in harm's way - and are seeking assurances that buildings are inspected by professionals before any reopening.
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Mental Health Concerns
Many Head Start teachers conveyed their worries about mental health status for adults, but more so for the children.
Since the earthquakes, Puerto Rico has experienced an uptick in suicides, including the recent suicide of a prominent cardiovascular surgeon in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
This past week we witnessed these impacts. We saw individuals rushing from buildings during tremors, their hands shaking - and even individuals openly weeping out of despair.
Mental health remains a primary concern; Christine Nieves, the co-founder of Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana, an open-air kitchen and neighborhood resource center, states that “asking people to remain calm is not easy when they have PTSD. We really need to work on our collective psychology, our collective mental health.” The series of earthquakes and aftershocks occur only two years after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which killed 2,975 people. These earthquakes reopen memories of the widespread hurricane tragedy and continue the struggle against an entirely “different reality,” says San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Henceforth, Governor Wanda Vázquez has declared a state of emergency due to the quakes causing $110 million in damage and destruction of over 559 structures.
While assessing the earthquake damage and mental health toll, we harkened back to our regional meetings across Puerto Rico, which occurred April 5-8, 2019. During those meetings, we learned that childcare providers in Puerto Rico are still experiencing the negative mental health impacts of Hurricane Maria. Providers stated that children are currently experiencing an increase in mental health issues, such as fear and anxiety. Providers also noted a decrease in academic performance and an increase in conduct and behavioral issues. Most notably, providers said that children fear another hurricane when they hear loud rain, strong wind, and when the electricity goes out. The fragility of the children in Puerto Rico post-Maria has been exacerbated by the series of earthquakes present every day.
You can read the White Paper: Preliminary Findings: Meetings with Early Childhood Professionals in Puerto Rico Regarding Disaster Recovery from Hurricane Maria here.
To combat the fear of collapsing structures, many are sleeping in tents outside of homes or schools. The Ponce municipality is even putting up tents in open areas and parks for people looking for refuge. Similarly, it is estimated that over 200 children will have to relocate schools due to damage. Additionally, we heard from some Head Start programs that some families have chosen to relocate to the mainland.
The series of earthquakes come two years after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, the worst natural disaster in the island's modern history.
Puerto Rico has endured so much over the past two years, the ongoing earthquakes and the uncertainty surrounding them is only exacerbating the many mental and emotional wounds previously caused by Hurricane Maria. The effects of these earthquakes extend way beyond demolished buildings. The effects from Hurricane Maria extend into the current damage, therefore, the conglomeration of disasters holds longevity in the lives of those impacted: children lose parents, houses, and schools; parents lose employment and finances; children are taken out of the education system; families and neighbors relocate to the mainland or different parts of the island; and families are impacted mentally and physically. It is impossible to underscore the mental health impacts that these earthquakes are having.
It is impossible to predict when this threat will end. Individuals will continue to live in a state of flux until the danger passes and life can return to normalcy. In the interim, the physical and psychological damage will continue - with each passing day, each passing quake.
We will continue to work in concert with our partners to better understand the situation, along with any need for support or resources. In the interim, we ask that you please keep the families and children of Puerto Rico in your thoughts.
The Institute for Childhood Preparedness is proud to serve as the primary contractor to the Region II Head Start Association. We provide capacity building assistance to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico Health Departments, and help to support the recovery and rebuilding of early childhood programs and facilities. This work was conducted in support of the Puerto Rico Department of Health through disaster recovery funding provided by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), through a partnership with the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) and the Region II Head Start Association. Follow our journey through Puerto Rico on Facebook.