A powerful 6.4-magnitude earthquake off Puerto Rico's southwestern coast early Tuesday morning has triggered a widespread blackout, interrupted telecommunications and sent homeowners scrambling out of collapsing homes in towns near the epicenter.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the shaking began about 4:24 a.m. and was followed by intense aftershocks, including a 6.0-magnitude shock wave that also was felt across the U.S. territory. As the sun rose on Puerto Rico, reports of significant damage and injuries were beginning to emerge from areas already impacted by a 5.8-magnitude quake on Monday that destroyed homes and a natural rock formation that was a signature coastal tourist attraction. The Tuesday morning earthquake briefly triggered tsunami-warning sirens and authorities alerted residents that a tsunami was possible — but that warning was later canceled.
Gov. Wanda Vásquez Garced told government employees to stay home as more aftershocks are expected throughout the day. Emergency personnel are evaluating the damage and inspecting Puerto Rico's power generation plants — all of which are located along the southern coast near the origin of the seismic activity.
Gladyra Archilla, a spokesperson for the city of Ponce, confirmed that a 77-year-old man was killed when a wall in his home fell on top of him. Emergency personnel are trying to rescue one other person in that home who is pinned under debris. Archilla said that many local buildings in the southern city were damaged.
Puerto Rico electrical authorities reported damage to infrastructure along the southern coast and said they were evaluating substations across the island. Power utility spokeswoman Edith Seda said the system is designed to shut off automatically in the event of vibrations, and she said the Costa Sur generating plant was damaged in the quake.
Seda said crews are working to restore power early in the day as long as it is safe to do so amid continuing aftershocks. It is possible that certain sectors will see electricity earlier than others and generators are powering the island's primary hospital, Centro Médico. San Juan's international airport remains operational, officials said.
The blackout raised fears akin to those after Hurricane Maria in 2017, when areas lost power for weeks or even months.
"Everything is paralyzed," said Marcos Irizarry Pagan, the mayor of a southern municipality impacted by the quake, during a live interview on Puerto Rico's local Telemundo station. "I hope this isn't like Maria."
Images of collapsed schools and homes permeated the airwaves and social media in Puerto Rico. The bulk of the damage was in the southern coastal region, from the island's second-largest city, Ponce, west to the municipalities of Yauco, Guayanilla, Lajas and Guánica. Residents that are able to travel outside their communities are heading straight for gas stations and grocery stores to stock up on supplies.
Hundreds of small earthquakes have been rattling nerves on the island archipelago since Dec. 28, as scientists described the island being "squeezed" between the North America and Caribbean tectonic plates along three different fault lines. Tuesday morning's earthquake was the most powerful one Puerto Rico has experienced since 2014.
On Monday, an ancient rock formation that adorned the background of countless vacation photos, Instagram posts and selfies tumbled into the ocean off the U.S. territory's southwestern coast after an unusually strong earthquake shook the island and damaged more than a dozen homes.
The 5.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the coastal municipalities of Guayanilla and Guánica about 6:35 a.m., sending families racing out of their homes as the structures collapsed beneath them. More than a dozen homes suffered severe damage and a local road caved in throughout the area. No injuries were reported on Monday but that could change as local mayors and emergency personnel fan out into their communities.
Punta Ventana, or Window Point, rewarded tourists to Puerto Rico's southern coast with a stunning frame for ocean views, with its rocky sea cliff and a hollowed-out "eye" carved by the cerulean blue waters of the Caribbean over millennia. The natural wonder has been a source of pride for residents of Guayanilla, whose mayor adopted the landmark as part of a new logo and slogan: "La Nueva Ventana al Caribe: The New Window to the Caribbean."
"We've lost an important symbol of our town and our natural heritage," said Guayanilla Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán. "Playa Ventana is iconic to this region and a priceless beautiful resource for a community that has suffered greatly in recent years."
Town officials said they had been monitoring the rock formation during two weeks of seismic activity that triggered hundreds of small temblors that shook loose gravel and rock that formed the "window's" top curve, which people used to climb to gain a view from atop the narrow rock bridge.
The sequence of shallow-depth earthquakes originated offshore, but they could be felt across the main island. The intensity of the tremors has ratcheted up in recent months but caused little more than heart palpitations across the island until Tuesday.
Residents packed a town hall this week, expressing fears that the power grid — still fragile after Hurricane Maria's devastation in 2017 — could fail again and that water service could remain interminably interrupted for many barrios, the mayor said.
"We are not OK," said Torres Yordán, who is asking residents to refresh their emergency plans and identify rendezvous points for family. "We've been told that the earthquakes will continue for at least several more days."
Vázquez Garced visited the city Monday evening, but local authorities do not expect the bankrupt central government to be much help. Painful memories haunt Guayanilla officials who have asked the state to provide psychological counseling for residents who are still traumatized by Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
Guayanilla is one of dozens of local municipalities struggling to recover structurally and economically from the Category 4 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico. Pounding rain in the central mountains caused flash flooding that bloated rivers downstream and inundated the urban center of the municipality. Hernández estimated there are about 50 families in the municipality that still live under blue tarps because of damage from Maria.