This was the year we were going to have fun on our trip to Puerto Rico, and not just work, work, work on our annual maintenance-and-repair visit to my wife’s family’s house in Ponce. When we arrived on New Year’s Day, the furthest thing from our thoughts was that we’d soon be in the middle of an earthquake swarm, an endless series of quakes ranging from gentle swaying to a house-shaker that would leave us shaking in our boots.
We live in Boston, where earthquakes are rare and gentle, at least in our experience. Allysen spent years growing up in Puerto Rico, where earthquakes weren’t even on the radar. Neither of us has the mindset of our friends and family in California, where “Earthquakes happen (shrug).”
The first few days were fine, and we even got out to enjoy some local craft-brew and pizza. Now we’re talking!
Oh, we’d had some of those unnerving swaying episodes but nothing really scary—right up to the time, on day six, that I picked up my daughter Jayce from the airport in the dead of night and brought her back to the house. (Why the dead of night? Because that’s when JetBlue, the only airline serving Ponce, flies in. And out.) Being past midnight, it was technically Jayce’s birthday. Happy birthday! Snore…
Just hours later, at 4 a.m., I sat up in bed from a fitful sleep. Suddenly the house started shaking, with a bone-rattling sound like a freight train going off the rails. “Get out!” Allysen yelled, leaping out of bed. I blinked dumbly, then lurched up. “Get out of the house!” I yelled down the hall to Jayce, as we made for the door. And then we stood on the deck between the two parts of the house, pulling on some hastily grabbed clothes, wondering what had hit us.
The city below was mostly dark; power had gone off, tripped by safeties at the generating plants. Our neighbor called on her cell to make sure we all right. From her vantage point, she could see cars streaming up the hill from the lowlands: families fleeing from the coast, in fear of a tsunami (which thankfully never came).
A 6.4 magnitude earthquake is what had hit us. That’s the kind of quake that brings down buildings. And indeed, in towns not far away, it had done just that. The very part of Puerto Rico that was hit hardest by Hurricane Maria was now near the offshore epicenter of movement between two tectonic plates. The power outage, however, was felt island wide. Smaller shudders continued through the sleepless night. We were experiencing, we later learned, an “earthquake swarm.”
By good fortune for us, this was the year we’d finally bought a small generator to provide minimal power in the event of an outage. This wasn’t the sort of outage we’d envisioned! I hadn’t even bought gas for it yet. The next day, I went out in search of gas, and found the city eerily quiet. There was little traffic, and nothing was open except some gas stations (amazingly, there were no lines for gas), and one minimally staffed Walgreens that was letting people in a few at time (they had a line).
With my gas, I headed back up to try the new generator. Soon it was muttering away, keeping our food cold. The electrician had not yet installed a transfer switch for the house circuits, so we just plugged the fridge in directly to the generator, and one more extension to power phone and laptop chargers. What a relief! Fortunately, we only had to depend on it for about ten hours. Power came back on late the first evening after the quake. We were amazed; we’d expected a much longer wait. You go, utility crews!
Still, Ponce was a city in shock. And we were a family in shock. What had happened to the idyllic island of Allysen’s youth?
That evening, we were supposed to go out to a nice restaurant to celebrate Jayce’s birthday. That wasn’t going to happen; nothing was open. Later, in the dead of the night, I was scheduled to fly home to tend to things in Boston. That wasn’t going to happen, either. All flights were cancelled.
(To be continued…)