We live in interesting times, saturated with news about the Coronavirus COVID-19, the upcoming elections, who won the Democratic primaries, just to name a few. These are valid issues to be concerned about, but that does not mean we should neglect others that are just as important. Let’s take the aftermath of the earthquakes in southern Puerto Rico, for instance. What has happened to the population that lived that fear and uncertainty for weeks on end? Those that are still too afraid to go home and are still living in tents?
To see for ourselves, BELatina recently traveled to Guánica, Puerto Rico, one of the places most affected by earthquakes at the start of the year, and is still experiencing terrifying aftershocks — the U.S. Geological survey reported three earthquakes just this Saturday mere miles away. We wanted to talk to people and ask how they were doing and what has been done to help them. We wanted to highlight a news event that had slipped from the front pages.
Before going to Guánica, the beachhead of the United States Marines invasion of the island, we walked around Old San Juan. Settled after Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1493, San Juan rose to prominence in the rich Spanish empire, owing to its strategic military location, port, and proximity to Latin America. After 400 years of colonial rule, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The capital city is home to El Morro Castle, framed by a brilliant blue Atlantic Ocean, its waves lapping the edges of the Spanish fortress. This picturesque view is what many people identify as Puerto Rico.
We wanted to know what tourists thought, or if they even knew, of the recent events that befell the island. To our surprise, many tourists couldn’t care less about what was happening on the island; it was holiday time for them. We spoke to a middle-aged tourist who told us that she didn’t know what was going on, but it didn’t affect her time there at all. Her nonchalance blew us away: How could she not know?
We did meet a gentleman from New York who told us that he wished he knew more about Puerto Rico and its issues. He was disappointed that most news outlets did not report news from the island. He was on vacation, but he was aware that things weren’t completely okay in Puerto Rico.
But BELatina’s mind was on the Puerto Ricans that had endured continuous earthquakes and had to flee their homes. It seemed like there were two Puerto Rico’s: the southern region affected by the earthquakes, and the capital, where people were enjoying themselves.
The drive to Guánica was almost two hours. The roads were clear, but there was an eeriness as we approached our destination. Once we entered the town, we drove around to see how much progress had been made to make it livable again. Sadly, many structures still remained untouched, collapsed like an accordion. We passed by the three-story school, left in pieces after one of the stronger earthquakes. Thankfully, no one was harmed; the earthquake struck outside of school hours.
Yet, alongside the devastation, it was uplifting to see how many local groups were on the ground to provide help to those in need.
As we made our way deeper into Guánica, we noticed that there were a few campsites that were not being regulated by the government. These sites were easily identifiable due to their makeshift blue tents. Everyone gathered around us to provide them with some supplies.
However, I personally couldn’t shake the feeling that something felt odd. It had been a little over a month and these people were still depending on the supplies that sporadically came in for their everyday living. So, I started talking to the locals.
One of the things the people from these unregulated campsites said is that the presence of the government was almost nonexistent. According to many of them, no one from the government had gone over to check on their well-being. They were left to fend for themselves and to rely on the help they received from local initiatives to help them out.
We kept making our way around other campsites. We would go to provide assistance, but many times people would guide us to other campsites. They said they had enough supplies and didn’t want to be greedy. That’s some noteworthy behavior right there. Despite living in uncertainty, the people of Guánica were not letting their integrity be compromised.
We also wanted to speak to those sent in to provide Guánica with federal assistance, which led us to find one of FEMA’s facilities.
The FEMA facility was a large white tent equipped with air conditioning. People were seated, waiting to be seen by a FEMA officer. There were designated stations for housing, counseling, legal, and small business services. According to one of the FEMA spokespeople, they were trying to make themselves as readily available as possible, while still operating within the municipality.
“We want people to understand that the inspections we do are different than those conducted by the municipalities. We only inspect the houses of people who register with us,” FEMA official Rossy Rey-Berrios told BELatina News.
“All we do is go to their properties to review and verify [what] the people have given us. The inspections of municipalities are more on anything that is public like public housing, schools,” she said.
She stressed that even though they are doing their best to help people, everything depends on the survivor. They need survivors to bring in the correct documentation so that they are able to process them. Aside from this, she mentioned that the registration is set for this month on March 16th. At least for the moment. It all depends on how everything moves along.
We inquired about the housing situation and we were told that this was something that was being worked on at the moment. Even though housing assistance was able to provide people with temporary homes, they are currently maxed out. However, Rey-Berrios did state that they have a base camp regulated by them where people can go.
“We even have a base camp where there are showers, medical assistance, and food. It’s like a little city,” she said.
It was still disconcerting to know that out of the people we had encountered, we hadn’t even met half of those affected.
“If you go out during the daytime, you won’t see a lot of people in the campsites. But at night there can be over 2,000 people in campsites. Most of the aftershocks happen at night, so nighttime is when people are more afraid,” Rey-Berrios told us.
Despite people knowing that some of their homes are safe, many know that their homes are not fit to survive a 5.0 and above magnitude earthquake. This has been proven by the many collapsed buildings around them.
After speaking to FEMA, it didn’t seem like the people of Guánica were completely alone. But we could see how a lot of people wouldn’t be able to leave their sites. Or many people are still hesitant about the help because they’re afraid that it might mean they have to leave their hometown for a while. No one likes leaving their homes, after all. If only the government (past and present) had been competent enough from the get-go to check up on the structure of these buildings long ago. Then, would this uncomfortable predicament have been avoided? If only.
BELatina wanted to add the municipalities and the government’s voice to this brief exposé. So we spoke to some of Guánica’s mayor’s assistants and the team guiding the relief efforts of all the residents of the town.
All were pleased to speak to us. These people want others to hear what their town needs to say.
We could see the writing on multiple whiteboards and data sheets all across their desks in the office they were staying in. Sadly, the earthquake had taken the mayor’s office as well. Either way, it was still a relief to know that these are the people accounting for everyone (and every pet!) roaming their town. Their system also included information on how many displaced people there were, where they were staying, who was receiving food, and more. There was no doubt in our mind that Guánica was trying to come up strong.
Though everything seemed to be running smoothly, some of the mayor’s assistants were worried about a few things. They wanted to let us know that just because they have a system doesn’t mean that’s all that’s needed for Guánica’s reconstruction.
“The central government has been very responsive. But there seems to be a lot of roadblocks for us to get the help we actually need from the federal government. We need a large sum of money to repair Guánica again,” Ramon, one of the mayor’s assistants said.
“People need to understand that Guánica is a disaster. Everyone from the state-level to the federal-level needs to know this,” he stated as well.
Guánica is obviously under a situation that couldn’t have been predicted by anyone in a million years. There are people still suffering, but many things are in place to lessen the turmoil many are experiencing. Regardless of what happens, these people will inevitably rise again.
Puerto Ricans have proven themselves time and time again how resilient they are and this is yet another moment they will show their strength to the world. One thing is for sure: Though the progress may be slower than anyone would like, they at least have each other — something that is indispensable to all of Puerto Rico.