Editor’s Note: Sandra Guzmán (@mssandraguzman) is a Puerto Rico-born EMMY award winning journalist and author of the women’s empowerment book, The New Latina’s Bible. She is a producer and lead interviewer in the film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a biographical documentary about the Nobel Prize winning legendary African American writer, Toni Morrison, now in theaters. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Saturday morning the earth shook from under my elderly mother’s feet in Ponce for the nearly one thousandth time – the earth has not stopped shaking since the early morning of December 28. Since then, according to Puerto Rico’s Seismic Network, there have been nearly 1,000 tremors and aftershocks, the largest one slamming the southern region on Tuesday and registering 6.4 on the Richter scale. Tuesday’s quake – which locals are calling El Grande – came a day after a 5.8 magnitude quake struck Monday morning. That same morning, Paul Earle of the US Geological Survey (USGS) told David Begnaud in an interview on “CBS This Morning” that the estimated chance of another big earthquake happening at 3%. On Saturday, another earthquake with a magnitude of 5.9 rocked Puerto Rico, according to the US Geological Survey.
The back-to-back natural disasters – earthquakes and hurricanes – that have hit the Caribbean island of my birth in just over two years have left many residents there anxious, sad, stressed out, confused, irritated, and exhausted. And also, asking questions. They are wondering if man-made events are the reason why the earth is literally coming apart under their feet, threatening the very ground they walk on.
“It’s crazy,” a friend texts me in the middle of the night from her home near San Juan. “It’s like we’ve entered some kind of porthole, loop, an alternative reality, an aberration of reality … so many crazy things going on and increasing in intensity. I’m concerned fracking is the result. We are being dismissed as crazy.”
Both the US Department of Energy and the USGS have denied rumors of fracking on the island in statements to the media. But after the treatment the island of Puerto Rico has received by the US government, especially under the Trump administration – but also extending back decades across administrations of both parties – no one could rightfully question the skepticism or the raw power of fear held by people who live there.
The island residents I’m in touch with are particularly questioning if rigs they have photographed and observed near areas where new gas and petroleum was found a few miles off fault lines – Lajas Valley, Montalva Point, and the Guayanilla Canyon – could be causing unusual seismic events. The quakes are happening a few miles off the southern coast as the North American plate and the Caribbean Plate squeeze Puerto Rico. Literally.
Seismologist Elizabeth Vanacore of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network told the New York Times of Puerto Rico, “We’re just as likely to have earthquakes as a place like California, Japan, New Zealand, Alaska.”
My friends on the island are asking if the unusually high number of reported earthquakes will be the new norm. More importantly, they want to know whether the quakes are a direct result of the exploration of oil and gas reserves found in the same area where the seismic activity is happening and detailed in a 2013 report from the USGS.
Geologists and social media journalists have used their networks to calm the public and dismiss the connection. People in Puerto Rico are asking questions because they don’t buy the answers they’ve been given by geologists and others. They’ve coined a new word for those who refuse to stop questioning, conspira-noicos, two Spanish words that form a combination of conspiracy and paranoid.
One of the many things that Puerto Ricans do best is invent new language, often humorous, when words in the dictionary fail them. Conspira-noicos is also a word that captures the spirit of what’s happening on the ground.
Who can blame islanders for being conspira-noicos? The seismic events this week that caused one death, power outages all over the island, and destruction of homes, schools, churches, and the sacred indigenous landmark, the rock formation Punta Ventana on the coast of Guayanilla, happened as the island is still recovering from category five Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
Nearly a dozen people on the island or assigned there have been arrested by the FBI on corruption allegations, including Trump’s Deputy FEMA director for the region, who has been charged by federal prosecutors with allegedly shuffling over $1 billion on contracts to Cobra Acquisitions, an Oklahoma-based energy company. An attorney for that deputy said she planned to vindicate her client and reveal “details of how this investigation has been handled by the government.” Meanwhile, Trump – who has not commented on charges against those who work in his administration – has taken to Twitter to call Puerto Rico one of the “most corrupt places” on earth.
The government failed the people and the island miserably after the hurricane. And it’s failing them now.
There is a collective stress and trauma that is part of the national DNA not just caused by Hurricane Maria but the subsequent government collapse that left the island without power for almost a year, and caused more than 4,345 deaths according to one estimate from Harvard’s school of public health. The residual strain of Puerto Rico’s long-dire financial straits.
How much can Puerto Rico take before it collapses into the ocean amid so much pressure?
On the island itself, in Ponce, Salinas, Peñuelas, Guanica, and Guayama, Guayanilla, friends, family, activists, don’t feel safe. They have more questions than they have answers. Why are so many emergency sirens that warn of tsunamis not working properly? How safe are schools, churches, public, and private buildings? What about the myriad of power plants that dot the southern landscape?
The southern region of Puerto Rico, where the devastation has been particularly intense, is dubbed “the sacrifice zone” or la zona sacrificada. During Spanish colonial times in the 17th century, it’s where the bulk of the sugar plantations – worked by African and Native slaves and poor peasants – were housed. Today these old plantations are sites of power, petrochemical and carbon burning plants. Their descendants live in the area. The region has also been a dumping group for toxic coal ash. The regions service the rich and powerful northern cities where more tourists and wealthier families live. Where power resides. Think of southern Puerto Rico as the Mississippi of the American South or even, Appalachia.
To say that the southern region of the island is more burdened than most is an understatement. I’ve seen the collateral of the environmental fossil fuel damage first hand. My late father, a veteran of the Korean War, worked at an oil refinery plant when he was a young man. I grew up with stories of men maimed and burnt alive as they fell into the cauldrons of the petrochemical plant CORCO in Peñuelas. In the 1960s, the petrochemical companies promised locals that they would bring thousands of jobs. What they did instead was rob the citizens of my father’s town of their beautiful beaches. Decades later, after the oil was sucked dry, the plant was abandoned, its toxins leeched into the earth. The money is gone. The poison stayed. It is one of 20 EPA toxic sites on the island, too dirty to clean up.
A few hours after the last quake, I spoke to Ruth Santiago, 60, a mother of two who was born in the Bronx and is longtime resident of Salinas, in southern Puerto Rico.
“The earth has moved so much here that sometimes I am not sure if the land is moving or not,” she said.
This seismic activity is what petrifies Santiago, an environmental justice lawyer, most of all. She has been working with communities on the ground that want to stop the construction of land and marine gas pipelines and ports. After Hurricane Maria and community pressure, families and groups advocating for cleaner, sustainable energy won a respite. The Puerto Rico government adopted a pledge to move the island to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
However, there was a caveat. Before they can get to 100% renewable energy, the same government is calling for a transition period – and creating an infrastructure to import liquified natural gas from the US.
“There is a gas rush to Puerto Rico,” Santiago explained. “There is a plan in place to import methane gas from places like Pennsylvania, train it down the eastern corridor town to Florida, place it on ships to the island where they plan to build three liquefied natural gas plants all around Puerto Rico.
Santiago spoke to a deep vulnerability and instability a number of Puerto Ricans have been sharing with me. Given the ubiquity of the quakes, the potential risks they pose to pipelines and the flammable nature of the gas, the fear of an accident casts a long shadow over the lives of many people who have already been forced to struggle with crisis and destruction on other fronts.
Whether we’re talking about seismic disaster or energy policy, what is at stake when governments don’t have the interests of the people is huge. She pleaded with me: please tell the world, other Puerto Ricans, and Americans, too much is at stake.
President Trump, who often weighs in on natural disasters in the US and abroad, has been publicly silent about Puerto Rico’s latest suffering and chaos. He did approve an emergency declaration, authorizing FEMA to assist, and the Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. When asked why the President hasn’t spoken publicly, the White House press office (which did release a statement on the earthquakes) told CNN they speak for the President. Anyone who has a phone knows that the President knows very well how to speak for himself.
Locals in the region say they are under attack by energy colonialists. Energy colonialists is another term they have coined to describe the 21st century battle for the billion-dollar gas industry on the southern part of island. It’s playing out now in a toxic mix of tremors, tsunami warnings, and confusion. Roughly two-thirds of the island has been in the dark, without power, a situation that only breeds more exhaustion and fear. Even as the power begins to come back on for some, for many the fear will linger.
Language continues to be expanded by Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans will continue to create new words to describe just how much is at stake in the era of climate emergency when words in the dictionary are not enough.
This article has been updated to reflect the 5.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Puerto Rico on Saturday.