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Emergency Declared as Deadly New Quake Terrifies Puerto Rico

A man carried a statue from the ruins of the Inmaculada Concepcion church in Guayanilla. The church was built in 1841.
A man carried a statue from the ruins of the Inmaculada Concepcion church in Guayanilla. The church was built in 1841.RICARDO ARDUENGO/getty images

The strongest tremor yet in a week of heavy seismic activity rocked Puerto Rico early Tuesday morning, knocking out power to much of the island, seriously damaging homes and buildings, and leaving at least one person dead.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, declared a state of emergency throughout Puerto Rico and activated the National Guard.

“In 102 years, Puerto Rico had not experienced anything like this,” she said.

The 6.4-magnitude quake, which struck 5 miles southwest of Tallaboa on Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast, was recorded at 4:24 a.m. local time, according to the US Geological Survey. It was the second consecutive day that an earthquake hit the island before dawn, terrifying residents scared about the cumulative effect on older buildings.

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The governor warned that the seismic activity is expected to continue in the coming days, as most of the island struggles with the huge power outage. A power plant in the south sustained significant damage, she said. The outage also left nearly a third of the island without running water.

The governor warned people whose houses do not meet building codes to seek shelter. About 255 people were already staying in shelters Tuesday.

“There is nothing to indicate from the experts who know these types of disasters that this is going to be bigger than what we have seen so far, but yes we will have repetitions and tremors that we will be feeling,” Vázquez said. “This is going to be happening for the next few days. How long? We cannot predict.”

White House officials said President Trump had been briefed on the earthquakes and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Pete Gaynor, had been in touch with senior Puerto Rican officials.

Nelson Martínez Guillén, 73, died in the city of Ponce after a wall fell on him, Mayor Mayita Meléndez said. A woman suffered a broken leg after she was pinned under a wall.

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“The people are scared,” Meléndez said. “There are homes that are totally destroyed.”

Tremors were felt through the region, and people living near the beaches are desperate to get out of their homes for fear of tsunamis, she said.

“It’s not safe,” Meléndez said. “The earth is moving constantly.”

Stephy Valentín, 22, of Ponce, said she and her family rushed to hide under the kitchen table after they were awakened by the strong shaking. All they could do was pray, she said. “It was scary. We’ve never experienced something like this, and it’s still going on. Aftershock after aftershock.”

Angel Vázquez Torres, director of emergency management in Ponce, said nine people were injured in the city during the earthquake, including a woman who was trapped in her home for three hours after a wall collapsed on her, pinning her leg.

“This has been very difficult,” he said. “No one can prepare for a disaster like this.”

There is no electricity in the city, and some parts of Ponce are without water, he said. “There are tremors happening at this very moment.”

The widespread power outages included San Juan, the capital. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said all of its power plants had gone offline after its “auto protection” systems had been activated. The utility said it hoped to restore electricity elsewhere later Tuesday.

But mindful of the enduring electrical problems that plagued the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017 — full power was not restored until nearly a year later — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was dispatching technical experts from the New York Power Authority to aid in the response.

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The US National Tsunami Warning Center said there was no related tsunami threat. Local authorities initially issued a tsunami watch before canceling it, according to Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency.

The quake’s magnitude was initially reported as 6.6 and later downgraded. Three strong aftershocks with preliminary estimates of 5.6, 5.2 and 4.5 magnitude followed the big quake. A bigger aftershock, of 5.8 magnitude, hit at 7:18 a.m. local time.

Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán of Guayanilla said on the radio that there was a lot of fear on the streets. “There’s hysteria,” he told a local television station.

Puerto Ricans ran out of their homes before dawn after being shaken awake by the quake. Officials urged people to stay calm and remain at home, but many people still got into their cars and drove to higher ground, prompting unusually heavy traffic in some areas in the dark. Many homes and buildings in southern coastal towns partially crumbled or sustained serious damage.