Thousands of people fled their homes on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast on Tuesday after a 10-day string of earthquakes crescendoed in a powerful magnitude 6.4 temblor that crushed an elderly man, injured at least eight other people and sent buildings tumbling to the ground.
Hours after the predawn quake cut power to the entire U.S. territory, a large swath of southern Puerto Rico was shaken by smaller quakes late into Tuesday afternoon. Seismologists said there was no way of knowing when the series of quakes would ease, prompting Puerto Ricans to stay with friends or family or even sleep outdoors far from the coast, fearful of collapsing buildings or a tsunami.
“I’m stringing up my hammock,” said Miguel Santana, a 38-year-old resident of the southwest coastal town of Guayanilla.
Alexandra Colberg, 27, moved out of her deeply cracked home in the nearby town of Guánica with her husband and four children, packing their mattresses, a refrigerator, a set of curtains and their clothes into two pickup trucks.
“What do I do with this?” asked her 9-year-old son, holding a tiny pink bucket with a pet fish that survived the earthquake.
“We need to go, because if not we could end up falling down there,” Colberg said as she gestured to the ground floor from the second story of her home. She and her family soon left for the mountain town of Hormigueros, where Colberg’s grandmother lives.
Most of the damage occurred in Guánica, where a three-story school collapsed. Preparing to start a 12-hour shift to protect it from looters was María Mercedes Alcázar, a 63-year-old private security guard who said she didn’t fear earthquakes, but her children, aged 37 and 42, were jittery.
A friend who dropped Alcázar off at the school, 49-year-old construction worker Mario Cruz, said he remains terrified.
“I’m not right, emotionally,” he said. “I don’t want to feel another one.”
The morning quake cut electricity to the island as power plants shut down to protect themselves. Authorities said two plants suffered light damage and they expected power to be restored later Tuesday. Puerto Rico’s main airport was operating normally, using generator power.