The recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico have been followed by the dismissals of several heads of government agencies this week, and ongoing protests demanding the resignation of the island’s unelected chief executive, Gov. Wanda Vázquez.
If that sounds like a lot of turmoil, it is, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Aside from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and this year’s earthquakes, the island’s political landscape has also seen major disruption following the disasters.
Puerto Rico had three different governors over a six-day period in August. And since 2020 is an election year, two of those three pols – including the current governor – are running to win the office in November while many island residents are sleeping in their cars or in tents, outside their homes, because they are afraid that the next tremor could bring their roofs down on them.
Most of the political upheaval stems from the government’s failure to distribute urgently needed supplies to disaster-stricken areas.
The latest political crisis was set off when Lorenzo Delgado-Torres streamed a live video to Facebook on Saturday, Jan. 18, showing a warehouse full of emergency supplies that were never distributed after Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The storage facility, which is located in Ponce, contained bottled water, cots, sheets, baby diapers, and expired canned foods.
That afternoon, Gov. Vázquez ordered a “meticulous” investigation, including an inventory of the warehouse in Ponce, as well as a demand to know whether any other supplies had been left unused. She gave government officials 48 hours to complete their investigation. The island’s Emergency Management Commissioner, Carlos Acevedo, was also fired immediately. She appointed Maj. Gen. José Reyes, the adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, to replace him.
The next day, Jan. 19, Vázquez fired the secretary of the Department of the Family, Glorimar Andújar, and the secretary of the Department of Housing, Fernando Gil. According to the governor, she had met with all of the agency heads, and they couldn’t offer information on what they had done during the emergency.
“This obviously disrupts the credibility we had achieved with the federal government,” Gov. Vázquez said at the press conference.
It appears that many Puerto Ricans were already refusing to channel emergency supplies through the government based on distribution failures that followed Maria, and were instead driving to the affected areas to deliver aid themselves. The latest discovery of the warehouse full of supplies in Ponce has widened that trust gap.
Since Monday, Jan. 20, hundreds of people have been protesting outside La Fortaleza (the Governor’s office and residence), as well as at the Capitol, to demand Vázquez’s resignation. On Thursday night, after several hours of demonstrations in the rain in Viejo San Juan, police moved in and used tear gas to try to disburse the crowd.
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Carlos Rivera was at the Capitol Monday night, holding a flag of Ponce, the city where the warehouse filled with emergency supplies was found. Although he lives in the island’s metropolitan area, he said he often visits his daughter in Ponce on weekends. He said the residents of the Ponce region – where damage is most significant – are suffering as a consequence of the tremors.
Rivera said that the local government has been insensitive. “Puerto Rican people must strongly protest,” he said.
Another protester, Fernando Castrello, of Guaynabo, emphasized how a wave of collective anger has been accumulating for years.
“I saw the videos of the warehouse in Ponce full of emergency supplies. Who knows if the government has more secrets? It’s outrageous to see how daring they are. But this goes further, when Maria happened, we [Puerto Ricans] began to see the cracks of this government,” Castrello said.
During that demonstration Monday, the Vázquez administration announced that “the preliminary conclusions” of the investigation would be referred to the Department of Justice for possible charges.
“I have been informed by the commissioner of the Bureau of Special Investigations (NIE, by its Spanish acronym), Héctor López, that as part of the ordinary procedures in this type of investigations, and in accordance with the findings that suggest inactions or omissions in the management of the warehouse and the supplies by some officials, we would take the Bureau’s recommendation and refer the preliminary conclusions to the Department of Justice,” Gov. Vázquez said.
The government has not yet published the results of the investigation and Puerto Ricans are likely to continue protesting this week – and perhaps even more loudly because of yet another revelation about what officials knew, regarding available supplies, and when.
On Wednesday, El Nuevo Día newspaper published a video of an Aug. 26, 2019, press conference during which Acevedo, the Emergency Management commissioner that Gov. Vázquez fired Jan. 18, spoke about the warehouses with emergency supplies available in preparation for Hurricane Dorian. That storm fortunately only grazed Puerto Rico, but Vázquez is in the video with Acevedo, proving that she was aware that additional supplies were available in August.
Based on El Nuevo Día’s video posting, Gov. Vázquez spoke with Telenoticias on Telemundo Thursday. During the interview, the governor admitted that officials had been aware of the existence of additional supplies, despite her call for an investigation following Delgado-Torres’ video of the Ponce warehouse on Jan. 20.
Speaking with Telenoticias, Gov. Vázquez said that she didn’t want to talk more about the issue “because it is under investigation, but everyone knew [that emergency supplies were there].”
It’s not clear what’s next for Gov. Vázquez, but if she is forced to resign, the Secretary of State, Elmer Román, must replace her, according to Puerto Rico’s Constitution. However, he hasn’t been confirmed by the island’s Senate. The next in the succession order would be the Secretary of Justice, Dennise Longo.
Puerto Ricans say the tremors have been non-stop in the south and southwest part of the island since Dec. 28. However, the 6.4 earthquake that struck Jan. 7, caused the collapse of houses, churches, schools, and other infrastructure, violently shaking a country that hasn’t yet fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, which led to 4,645 deaths.
“The sacrifice of many years was lost in just a minute,” said Nivia Martínez, who lost her two-level house in Las Alturas del Cafetal in Yauco.
She said it felt like her house “exploded on the floor.” She was living with her brother, sister-in-law, and niece. Now she sleeps in a neighbor’s marquee.
A three-minute walk led to the Santos-López family’s tent, which has a sign that says “Welcome. Me and my house will serve the Lord.” Their home is completely destroyed.
Eda López said that the night before the 6.4 earthquake, her three-year-old grandson told her, “Grandma, I’m afraid. Your house is going to shake and fall.”
She took the cars out of the first level and photographed her house, just in case. That night she slept with a whistle. Eda got up at dawn and said to herself, “Why am I awake? It’s not yet time to get up to work.” She said she went back to sleep again and immediately the house began to shake.
Some of their neighbors also lost their homes, and others think that a stronger earthquake will cause them to collapse. So they all camp in front of their houses.
Gov. Vázquez declared a commonwealth-wide state of emergency on Jan. 7 and activated the Puerto Rico National Guard (PRNG) to assist in response efforts. President Donald Trump signed Vázquez’s petition that same night, in order to authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist the island with emergency protection measures (category B), under the Public Assistance program. The program helps with basic needs like water, cots, and food, and covers 75% of the expenses in the 78 municipalities.
The Puerto Rican government created 25 groups to do the inspections. The preliminary damages amounted to an estimated $110 million with 559 affected structures as of Jan. 10. The figures were confirmed by Gov. Vázquez in a press conference.
Local governments are now responsible for paying 25% of the damages, using a disbursement from the Emergency Fund Reserve for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, as approved by the Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) for Puerto Rico.
Gov. Vázquez also disbursed $2 million to each municipality initially affected by the earthquakes: Guánica, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce, Utuado, and Yauco.
But Puerto Rico was again strongly shaken on Jan. 11 by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. That Saturday, Gov. Vázquez signed the Declaration of Major Assistance for Puerto Rico. The preliminary damage estimate was included, but will increase as there have been more earthquakes causing more damage. President Trump declared Puerto Rico a major disaster zone on Jan. 16.
“As we trusted, and the people of Puerto Rico expected, President Donald Trump signed the Declaration of Major Assistance for Puerto Rico, which will help us in the recovery process after the earthquakes that affect the island, especially the south area. […] It is very necessary at this time to guarantee the continuation of the recovery work carried out by our government agencies,” the Governor said.
She also said that with the declaration of a major disaster, “Puerto Rico will have access to additional assistance related to small businesses through SBA; in addition to housing loans, business damages and economic losses.”
Nevertheless, people from the south of the island reiterated that they continue to stand by citizen assistance, rather than the government’s.
“I had some extra emergency supplies, so I went and handed them to bedridden people. I didn’t give them to them [to the local government] per se. I brought them pillows, sheets, diapers and gloves. I’m sorry, but the aid does not come [with the government],” Yauco resident Isis Pagán said.
Pagán lives with her husband and sister-in-law, who suffers from memory loss and fibromyalgia. As long as the earthquakes continue with a magnitude of 4.0 or more, Pagán says she will continue sleeping with her family in the car.
“It’s hard to have a house and not being able to live in there,” she added.
Her neighbor, Cruz Cintrón, doesn’t want to live in his house either, so he sleeps in a tent with his wife, mother-in-law, and son, who had an accident and cannot walk. His daughters’ houses in Yauco also collapsed, so they have decided to move to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“The house started to shake, the light went out [and came back in] 12 days,” Cintrón said. “I told my son that he had to stay seated in the wheelchair, looked for my wife and mother-in-law, while I was stepping on glass. The community was yelling.”
Asked who had provided them with emergency supplies, Cintrón said, “Puerto Rican people.” He said that he received help from people all around the island.
Zulay Feliciano, from Peñuelas, and whose house is uninhabitable, also made a similar statement. She now lives with her husband, daughter, and son in the municipal shelter.
“Most of the help we have received has been from the Puerto Rican people,” Feliciano said.
Juan Pablo Rivera, director of Peñuela’s Emergency Management, reported that since Jan. 8, they have had 283 refugees in the shelter run by the municipal government.
At the moment, most citizens have electricity, but only after waiting three to seven days for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore service.
Because of the earthquakes, public school classes have been postponed. Only schools that have been inspected by engineers will be allowed to start classes again on Jan. 28 and 29. But those inspections will only determine which schools can open, and not if they will resist another earthquake.
Puerto Rico’s biggest concern is the uncertainty regarding when the earthquakes will end.
• NEXT WEEK: Students Displaced By Puerto Rico Earthquakes Begin To Arrive In Connecticut
About the reporter
Angélica Serrano-Román is Puerto Rican journalist and has been reporting for Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism since 2019. She interned at Puerto Rico’s main newspaper, El Nuevo Día, in 2019, and has been published by the Orlando Sentinel, Univision Orlando, and Metro Puerto Rico. She also is a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.