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A month after Puerto Rico's earthquakes began, more than 4,000 still sleep outside

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 1/28/2020 By Jim Wyss, Miami Herald
a group of people sitting in chairs: Paramedics transport an old man to a shelter opened for residents at 'Complejo deportivo Santiago Rosario' in the town of Guayanilla on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, on Jan. 8, 2020. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Puerto Ricans have been sleeping outside since a series of earthquakes began hitting the island on Dec. 28. © Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS Paramedics transport an old man to a shelter opened for residents at 'Complejo deportivo Santiago Rosario' in the town of Guayanilla on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, on Jan. 8, 2020. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Puerto Ricans have been sleeping outside since a series of earthquakes began hitting the island on Dec. 28.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A month after a series of powerful earthquakes began rattling Puerto Rico, about 4,600 people are still sleeping at emergency shelters — either because their residences are damaged or because they’re simply too afraid to go home.

At a news conference Tuesday, government officials said the quakes, which began on Dec. 28 and peaked on Jan. 7 with a magnitude 6.4 main shock, have damaged 1,390 buildings and completely destroyed at least 300. But most of the people who remain at municipal shelters and improvised camps are there out of sheer precaution, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said.

“During my visits to shelters and camps, I’ve noticed that although some people have lost their homes … many people simply don’t want to sleep under a roof,” she said. “Even when their house hasn’t been damaged, they prefer to be at the camps or under a tent for security.”

While the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people is accustomed to storms and hurricanes, these are the first major earthquakes to hit Puerto Rico in a century, and the psychic damage has been almost as bad as the physical damage.

Julio Seda, 55, has been living in a tent city in Guayanilla since Jan. 7. He realizes he’s one of the lucky ones, as his home has been unscathed by the earthquakes. And last week he was almost ready to quit sleeping in his car and go home, but on Saturday the area was hit by a powerful magnitude 5 aftershock.

“There’s so much speculation and fear that a bigger earthquake is coming and that has kept us living outside,” said Seda, who has been camping out with 13 other people. “It’s hard to go home while it’s still shaking.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided 1,086 people with $2.7 million in home repair and rental assistance aid due to the earthquakes. And the local government has been sending teams of therapists and psychologists to provide support.

“This isn’t the first country or area of a country that has seen constant earthquakes,” said Suzanne Roig, the head of Puerto Rico’s Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration, or ASSMCA. “We are trying to provide an education … but it takes time.”

Vázquez said local and federal officials are planning to have everyone out of sprawling emergency camps strewn along Puerto Rico’s southern coast within 60 days, even as aftershocks continue.

The government’s response to the earthquakes has come under intense scrutiny as Vázquez is hoping to win a second term in November’s general election.

Earlier this month, she came under fire after it was discovered that a warehouse full of emergency aid was never disbursed. She fired three of her Cabinet members in response and ordered a Justice Department investigation.

On Tuesday, she tried to highlight her government’s work, saying it has provided shelter to more than 62,800 people since the earthquakes started, distributed more than 144,700 meals and inspected more than 7,081 homes.

But Vázquez said there’s still “a long way to go” before the crisis is over.

The U.S. Geological Survey has said minor aftershocks are likely to continue for days, if not weeks, to come.

Seda said he’s getting used to the idea that quakes are part of his new reality. And he says he may go home this week if the tremors continue to subside.

“But it’s going to take time before I completely trust my house,” he said.

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©2020 Miami Herald

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