Puerto Rico Seismic Network urges effective post-earthquake response

Interim director advises citizens to educate themselves and prepare emergency plans with family members because ‘uncertainty is one of the weakest points’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

In the aftermath of the earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico on Christmas Eve, island residents fear something worse is yet to come.

That is why, Puerto Rico Seismic Network (PRSN) Interim Director Víctor Huérfano told the STAR on Sunday, the government must develop a more effective emergency response to help affected people “as we don’t want this or future generations to have this unfortunate experience.”

“We have to say things like they are,” Huérfano said. “Given what we saw with the government’s response after the earthquakes, they should have handled the matter more efficiently when it came to attending to the victims. It was all a learning experience to make sure we don’t face this again.”

The PRSN interim chief said that even if the government has educational programs and initiatives to raise awareness on the matter, more needs to be done.

“It’s not only to face it by dropping, covering, and holding on, there needs to be a more in-depth preparation,” Huérfano said. “In the case of the southeast of Puerto Rico, we saw many families losing their homes, many citizens losing their jobs and enterprises. Both the Guánica town hall and their local church were also damaged, which affects the community as they have nowhere to go physically, so this is part of a more complex system that needs more work in order to become resilient.”

“Tying up the preparation with that if there is one or another event [to come] shouldn’t really be it; we should be prepared at all times,” he added, noting that the island has faced significant seismic events for centuries, including an 8.0-magnitude tremor on May 2, 1787 in the northeastern part of the island, the most intense earthquake recorded in Puerto Rico’s recorded history.

When the STAR asked how the governmental system and its members can be better prepared during an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Huérfano replied that more than building an emergency kit, it was important to build a “second emotional kit” as events such as the coronavirus, the 5.8-magnitude tremor on Jan. 7 of this year, hurricanes Irma and Maria have “somewhat worn out the people’s state of mind.”

“Earthquakes won’t only affect structures, they will also affect people’s emotions; that’s something that we have learned,” the PRSN interim director said. “If we are not ready to face this problem, we will crumble, and that’s not good. We must know how to respond effectively and keep our plans up to date.”

Huérfano also urged citizens to safeguard their residences because, he said, “if you feel unsafe inside your home, it will make everything else more complicated.”

“People were uncertain, they didn’t feel safe inside their houses; therefore, if there was a mild or moderate seismic event, they would fear that their homes would begin to crumble or something worse would happen,” he said.

Likewise, Huérfano recommended that island residents participate in educational efforts, not be afraid to talk about earthquakes and how to respond to them with family members and acquaintances, and remain informed from reliable outlets as “uncertainty is one of the weakest points to face.”

“I’m aware there aren’t enough [educational] events available,” he said. “I wish we could conduct more events, but there are always challenges to conducting them throughout the island.”

As for facing an earthquake amid the current public health emergency, while reiterating that emergency kits must include face masks and hand sanitizer, Huérfano insisted that “people must develop an awareness of facing more than one emergency.”

“We can’t just be prepared for an earthquake and leave the pandemic aside, and vice versa. Earthquakes can happen at any time and any place,” he stated. “Last January, we could meet with our neighbors, check if everyone is doing well, remain together, and support each other; now, we can’t do the latter as we must keep physical distance from others.”

At press time Sunday, a 3.7-magnitude earthquake had been reported in the south and center of the island. The United States Geological Survey reported that the quake’s epicenter was about 5.6 miles (9 kilometers) south-southeast of Guánica’s María Antonia sector.

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