Missionaries, church groups in Puerto Rico on surviving earthquake, facing uncertainty

Puerto Rico
Parroquia Inmaculada Concepción church was heavily damaged after a 6.4 earthquake hit just south of the island on Jan. 7, 2020, in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. This morning's earthquake was preceded by a series of smaller quakes in the south of the island with the epicenter in Guánica. |

Several church groups and missionaries working in Puerto Rico during Tuesday’s 6.4 magnitude earthquake that triggered an islandwide blackout and toppled several churches and other buildings are relaying their experiences and telling how they and others are coping with uncertainty in the aftermath.

“We were all awakened at 4:30 a.m. by our walls and windows shaking,” Sue D’Anna, a member of the First Congregational Church of Hartland, Vermont, told Valley News. “Our side of the island has not seen damage, but the other side has seen significant destruction.”

The United States Geological Survey said in a release Tuesday that the earthquake, which has left at least one person on the island dead, struck at about 4:24 a.m. local time offshore of southwest Puerto Rico just a day after a magnitude 5.8 quake erupted from the same area.

Over the past several weeks, hundreds of small earthquakes have occurred in the region, the USGS said. The seismic activity began with a magnitude 4.7 earthquake late on Dec. 28 and was followed by a magnitude 5.0 tremor just a few hours later. Since Dec. 28, the USGS said more than 400 magnitude 2+ earthquakes have occurred in the region. Some 10 of them registered stronger than magnitude 4, including Tuesday’s tremor.

About 25 volunteers from the First Congregational Church of Hartland arrived in Puerto Rico on Sunday to help with relief efforts from the devastation of Hurricane Maria which left thousands dead in September 2017.

All of them were reported safe and they had planned to continue working to renovate a church in San Juan but officials concerned about more earthquakes and whether the building remains structurally safe has paused all their efforts for now.

“At this point, we are unclear about how the remainder of our week and work plans will unfold,” D’Anna said.

Seventh-day Adventist leaders in Puerto Rico are also struggling to understand the series of earthquakes that have been plaguing the island and the uncertainty that hangs over the lives of many affected by the disaster.

“We have never as a country dealt with such earthquake in all my years,” Pastor Jose A. Rodríguez, president of the church in Puerto Rico, said in a field report from the SDA.

“At 4:24 a.m. I woke up to the house shaking, and then one aftershock then another. Sometimes it’s like 10 tremors a day, so there’s so much uncertainty for all of us here in Puerto Rico,” said Rodríguez, who lives in the western part of the island. Even though the earthquakes have been strongest in the south, the entire island has felt each tremor, said Rodriguez.

“There is so much uncertainty now, bridges are down, roads have collapsed, power hasn’t been restored and many are taking refuge in parks and arenas,” he said.

He explained that at least six members of his church have lost their homes as a result of the earthquake and leaders in the South Puerto Rico Conference are still assessing the needs of members.

Ponce Puerto Rico Stake President Franki Ruiz of the Latter-day Saints told Deseret News that he had expected a big quake due to frequent seismic activity on the island in the days before it hit.

“I woke up and told my wife and parents and kids that this was the [big] one, so let’s get out of the house,” he said. “We walked calmly outside, and all my neighbors were also leaving their homes.”

He added: “We have no reports of members being harmed or reports of their homes being seriously damaged. … We are still trying to account for everyone — but so far, things seem to be OK for the members.” 

Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who was born in Puerto Rico,  told The Philadelphia Enquirer that while her relatives on the Island are safe, she and others are starting to plan how to help with relief efforts like they did in the wake of  Hurricane Maria. The local Latin American community joined with other groups, churches and synagogues to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.

“So many infrastructure problems still remain from past disasters,” she said. “The electric grid is still very fragile. A lot of things have been normalized; it’s not unusual to lose power or water. People are more nonchalant about it. That becomes oppressive day after day. It’s very sad.”

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