Puerto Rico earthquake and aftermath: U-M experts can discuss

Map showing 8km S of Indios, Puerto Rico and impact of the January 6, 2020, M 5.

Map showing 8km S of Indios, Puerto Rico and impact of the January 6, 2020, M 5.8 earthquake. Image courtesy: USGS

EXPERTS ADVISORY

University of Michigan experts-including two who are in Puerto Rico now and experienced Tuesday’s earthquake and the aftershocks-are available to discuss the situation in Puerto Rico.

Nearly one million people in Puerto Rico remain without power and hundreds of thousands are without water following a magnitude-6.4 earthquake that struck before dawn on Tuesday.

The quake killed one person, injured nine others, and severely damaged infrastructure along the island’s southwest coast.

Ivette Perfecto is a professor of ecology and natural resources at the School for Environment and Sustainability. Her research focuses on biodiversity in agricultural landscapes, primarily in the tropics. She is originally from Puerto Rico and has conducted field research there and elsewhere in Latin America, including Mexico and Central America.

Perfecto and U-M ecologist John Vandermeer are in Puerto Rico conducting field research at coffee farms in the mountainous west-central region. Perfecto and Vandermeer, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, also surveyed damage to Puerto Rican coffee farms after Hurricane Maria struck as a Category 4 storm in September 2017.

If a few places, it took more than a year to restore power after Hurricane Maria, and many roads in the island’s central region still have not been repaired, Perfecto said.

"Puerto Ricans are pretty joyful people, in general, but there is growing anxiety and uncertainty-and some despair-after all the things that have happened here and the lack of response from the government,” Perfecto said Thursday.

"People are skeptical about what will happen with the power this time,” she said. "My worry is that if the power is not restored quickly, people are going to start leaving the island, as they did after Maria.”

Perfecto and Vandermeer’s October 2019 paper in the journal Scientific Reports: www.nature.com/artic­les/s41598-019-51416-1

Ben van der Pluijm is a professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Literature. and the Arts. He is an expert on the societal impacts of geohazards.

"Tuesday morning’s strong, shallow earthquake in southern Puerto Rico was due to oblique normal faulting in the northern Caribbean plate,” he said. "More than 100 events of magnitude 3 and greater have occurred there over the past few weeks, and more earthquakes are likely.”

The seismic activity is related to an active deformation zone near the northern boundary of the Caribbean microplate, which is wedged between the North American and South American tectonic plates, he said. The western continuation of this zone includes the location of the devastating magnitude-7.0 Haiti earthquake in January 2010, which killed more than 150,000 people.

"Historic earthquakes along the zone result from a mixture of normal, reverse and lateral slip faulting, as tectonic plates jostle,” van der Pluijm said.” Societal impacts in the region are amplified because the infrastructure is not well prepared for strong shaking from shallow earthquakes.”

Scott Greer is a professor of health management and policy and of global public health at U-M School of Public Health. Last year, he co-authored a study that showed the federal response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma was faster and more generous than the help sent to Puerto Rico in the preparation and aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

"The politics underlying disaster response in Puerto Rico are increasingly partisan, with Democratic politicians arguing that Puerto Ricans, as American citizens, deserve as much assistance as any other disaster-struck people and Republican politicians more likely to want to evaluate the deservingness of Puerto Ricans,” he said. "Partisanship in disaster response is unsurprising but rarely this powerful.”

John Pottow , a professor at the Law School, has previously testified before Congress regarding bankruptcy protection bills for Puerto Rico.

"What the financial crisis taught us is that the infrastructure, particularly the power system, in Puerto Rico is antiquated,” he said. "The causes vary, from neglect to insufficient federal support. But regardless of the causes, it will make recovery all the more difficult for this struggling part of the nation.”


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