GUÁNICA, Puerto Rico – A 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook southwestern Puerto Rico before sunrise Monday, frightening people out of their beds, cracking house walls and destroying a photogenic beachside rock formation known as Punta Ventana.
The natural wonder in the town of Guayanilla, shaped like a round stone window with a view of the ocean, had begun to look vulnerable after smaller temblors started to hit a week ago, Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán said. On Monday, he said, “it finally fell.”
The quake struck at 6:32 a.m. local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was the strongest yet to be felt in the coastal towns west of the city of Ponce that have been trembling for more than a week. The rash of smaller temblors began with three shakes of 4.7, 5.0 and 4.7 magnitude in the space of three hours during the night of Dec. 28-29 and have continued.
No one was seriously hurt, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said. Classes at public schools, which were scheduled to resume Tuesday, were pushed back until Jan. 13 to give inspectors time to check the buildings for damage, she said. At least one school building in Guayanilla was being used as a shelter Monday afternoon.
José Francisco Benítez, 48, said he was awakened by the quake at a beach resort in Guánica, where some of the most serious damage was reported. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “Everything shook.”
A strong, 4.9-magnitude aftershock struck about four hours after the big quake, rattling nerves again.
Officials warned of possible mudslides and urged people to stay off the roads to allow emergency personnel to assess the damage.
Monday is Three Kings Day, a holiday in Puerto Rico also known as the Feast of the Epiphany. Towns in the area went ahead with holiday parades, though some attendees said they felt jittery.
Several houses in Guánica were reported to have collapsed. Supporting columns crumbled underneath Silvestre Alicea’s elevated light-green house, leaving the toppled structure perched at a precarious angle.
“Look at my house,” said Alicea, 66, who returned from New York City two years ago, moving in to the house he had built over 30 years in preparation for his retirement. “I was there, in there,” he said.
Many of the houses in the Esperanza neighborhood where he lives were built on columns to spare them from floods, on an island more accustomed to hurricanes than earthquakes. Alicea’s house survived Hurricane Maria in 2017 but not the quake Monday.
He said he planned to spend the night at his sister’s house, but could not think further into the future. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
Monday afternoon, Héctor Luis Rodríguez, 83, sat in his car, still paralyzed with fear. His house had already been patched up with a blue tarpaulin after the hurricane. The tarp is still there. Now, so are huge cracks running up and across the walls. “It cracked open everywhere inside,” the retired bus driver said. “I worry that I’m going to be homeless.”
In Guayanilla, emergency workers helped a couple and two children whose house collapsed, burying three cars that had been parked underneath. The man who lived inside, identified only as Alan, described to NotiCentro the harrowing moment in which the earth trembled, waking him up as the floor gave way.
“The house fell with us in it,” he said.
He picked up one of his children, his wife grabbed the other, and they made their way out the door. The house had stood on 12 columns about 8 feet tall. The automobiles below appeared to stave off a collapse of the roof, he said. “We’re alive, thank God, because of the cars,” he said.
Elizabeth Vanacore, a seismologist, said people felt the recent quakes because they were shallow and occurred near land. “People can expect to feel more earthquakes over the next few days, especially given its location near the coast,” Vanacore said.
Puerto Rico lies near the border of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates.