SAN JUAN – A 5.8 magnitude quake hit Puerto Rico before dawn Monday, unleashing small landslides, causing power outages and collapsing some homes, as well as a famed tourist attraction. It was one of the strongest quakes yet in a series that have hit the U.S. territory over the past week.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The quake was followed by a string of smaller temblors, including one measured at magnitude 5 that struck at 10:51 a.m. (1451 GMT), shaking power lines and frightening residents of southern Puerto Rico who had been waiting outside their homes due to fears the buildings were damaged and unstable.
The first quake struck at 6:32 a.m. (1032 GMT) just south of the island at a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles), according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The shake collapsed a coastal rock formation that had formed a sort of rounded window, Punta Ventana, that was a popular tourist draw in the southwest town of Guayanilla.
In the southern town of Guanica, Mayor Santos Seda told The Associated Press that five homes collapsed, but only one of them was inhabited. No injuries had been reported.
Another 29 homes were heavily damaged and about to collapse, he said.
Helicopters buzzed overhead and terrified residents jumped up from their folding chairs every time the earth shook, yelling at others to stay away from power lines.
Few people dared go back inside their homes, but José Quiñones, 54, had no choice. His 80-year-old mother had heart problems and was lying in bed.
Dozens of people in a neighborhood called Hope in Guanica walked around with their phones and yelled out the magnitude of the latest earthquakes as they tried to calm children who were forced to open the presents they'd received for Three Kings Day, a religious holiday, on streets and sidewalks.
“This is hell,” said Albert Rodríguez, 43, whose home collapsed on one side as the smell of gas filled the air. “We haven’t slept.... You can’t remain calm here. Guanica is no longer a safe place.”
Less than a block away, Silvestre Alicea surveyed his home, which collapsed on his prized blue 1977 Toyota Corolla as he leaped from the balcony.
Alicea had lived in New York for years until he retired to Guanica two years ago to live in the home he spent 15 years building. He doesn’t have insurance.
People in the working-class neighborhood shared soda and snacks as they sought shelter from a harsh sun, careful to stay away from homes whose columns and foundations were heavily cracked.
Many already had bags packed in their cars with a change of clothes, food, water and medicine.
Some like Noelia De Jesús, 69, and her husband, who uses a wheelchair, didn’t know where they would spend the night. Government officials who inspected their home earlier in the morning said it was unsafe to live in and advised them to stay elsewhere.
“Everything broke, including the TV,” she said. “This is horrible.”
Puerto Rico doesn’t have a public earthquake warning system, except for sirens that are supposed to ring in case of a tsunami. Residents in this neighborhood criticized the government for what they believe is a lack of action.
Dr. Sindia Alvarado, who lives in the southern coastal town of Penuelas, said she was petrified.
“My entire family woke up screaming,” she said. “I though the house was going to crack in half.”
The flurry of quakes in Puerto Rico's southern region began the night of Dec. 28, with quakes ranging in magnitude from 4.7 to 5.1. Previous quakes of lesser magnitudes in recent days have cracked homes and knocked goods off supermarket shelves.
Victor Huerfano, director of Puerto Rico's Seismic Network, told the AP that shallow quakes were occurring along three faults in Puerto Rico’s southwest region: Lajas Valley, Montalva Point and the Guayanilla Canyon. He said the quakes overall come as the North American plate and the Caribbean plate squeeze Puerto Rico, and that more earthquakes and aftershocks are expected, although officials expect them to eventually taper off.
One of the largest and most damaging earthquakes to hit Puerto Rico occurred in October 1918, when a magnitude 7.3 quake struck near the island’s northwest coast, unleashing a tsunami and killing 116 people.