Experts warn Puerto Rico not prepared for big earthquakes

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The Adripina Seda public school stands partially collapsed after an earthquake struck Guanica, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn on Tuesday, killing one man, injuring others and collapsing buildings in the southern part of the island. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN – More than two years ago, Hurricane Maria revealed that Puerto Rico was utterly unprepared for a powerful hurricane despite its location in one of the world’s most storm-vulnerable regions.

Now, a flurry of earthquakes topped by a magnitude 6.4 temblor that killed one person and damaged hundreds of buildings has many accusing the government of being caught unready again.

“It proved that Puerto Rico is not prepared for a seismic movement,” said Nazario Lugo, president of the island’s Association of Emergency Managers. “The government has to be proactive, and we saw that was not the case until they were up to their neck in water.”

Lugo, a former emergency management director for Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press that the government didn’t activate its emergency command center until the day after the largest quake hit, breaking with protocol.

This drew comparisons to Hurricane Maria of 2017, which devastated the island and caused thousands of deaths. Critics said it caught the local and federal governments with limited supplies on an island with poorly maintained infrastructure and led to a delayed response stemming from a lack of communication and organization.

A flurry of hundreds of small quakes began hitting Puerto Rico on Dec. 28, and a magnitude 5.8 jolt that toppled a famed rock formation landmark struck on Jan. 6, Three Kings’ Day, a major holiday on the island.

“The first day, when toys were being handed out, they should have started a process to activate the emergency plan,” he said.

That didn't happen until Tuesday's 6.4 earthquake hit before dawn. It knocked out power to the entire island, collapsed several homes and schools and cracked bridges. Many living along the southern coastline were left without water service and more than 4,900 people sought refuge in government shelters.