SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency on Tuesday after a series of earthquakes killed at least one person, toppled buildings and knocked out power to nearly the entire island of more than 3 million people.
The largest of the quakes in the U.S. territory registered at magnitude 6.4, the most powerful to hit the Caribbean island in 102 years.
With two large power plants shut down, drinking water was cut off to at least 300,000 customers, Vazquez told a news conference. She said she did not know when power would be restored on the island, which is still recovering from a pair of devastating hurricanes in 2017.
Puerto Rico’s electricity authority said it hoped to re-establish services during the night in the metropolitan area of San Juan, the capital, which is home to about 2.3 million people.
At least 346 people were left homeless, officials said, after homes were flattened, mostly in the south of the island. Many damaged buildings sat next to piles of rubble.
Bottled water, batteries and flashlights ran low at San Juan supermarkets and ice was scarce as residents tried to keep food from rotting, said resident Luis Borri, 31.
“Water is running out, people are grabbing like 10 boxes,” said Borri, who recharged his cellphone at San Juan’s international airport where he works and where backup generators allowed normal services to continue.
Puerto Rico’s emergency declaration will facilitate federal financial aid. President Donald Trump has been briefed on the earthquakes, and administration officials were monitoring the impact in coordination with Puerto Rico officials.
HURRICANES AND BANKRUPTCY
Puerto Rico has been rocked by hundreds of quakes since Dec. 28, including 10 of magnitude 4 or greater, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Powerful quakes are rare in Puerto Rico. A 7.3 magnitude quake that occurred in 1918 triggered a tsunami and killed 116 people, according to the island’s seismology office.
“Everyone’s scared, it’s the first time anything like this has happened,” said San Juan resident Patricia Alonso, 48, who with her 13-year-old son was heading to her mother’s apartment building, which had power from an emergency generator.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 killed about 3,000 people and destroyed a significant amount of infrastructure. Puerto Rico is also working through a bankruptcy process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.
“We are a resilient people. We have responded to many difficult situations. Now this has been asked of us one more time,” said Vazquez, who assumed office in August after Ricardo Rossello stepped down over a scandal involving offensive chat messages and government corruption.
One of Tuesday’s quakes triggered an automatic shutdown of electricity across the island as a safety measure and a later, more powerful quake damaged power plants in the southern part of the island, Vazquez said.
Power plants were slowly coming back on line, with Puerto Rico producing over 200 megawatts of electricity by around 8:15 p.m., still far short of demand of about 2,000 megawatts, Angel Figueroa, president of the electricity workers’ union UTIER, said on Twitter.
The governor said a 73-year-old man died after a wall fell on him, but it was too soon to offer a full assessment of damage or injuries.
Tuesday’s magnitude 6.4 quake struck at a depth of 6 miles (10 km) at 4:24 a.m. (0824 GMT) near Ponce on the island’s southern coast, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Witnesses on social media described it as “super strong” and lasting up to 30 seconds. It was followed by a number of hefty aftershocks, including two measuring 5.6.
Reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta and Shubham Kalia; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler