Earthquake rattles Puerto Rico

By Amy Grace Drinkwater

Between Dec. 28 and Jan. 7, a series of earthquakes shook Puerto Rico.

The strongest of the quakes, a 6.4 magnitude, struck on Jan. 7, causing severe damage to homes and power lines. There were over 500 quakes in total. Since then, the island has continued to experience aftershocks.

The United States Geological Survey stated the strongest shaking was felt in the southern part of Puerto Rico, while the rest of the island felt moderate shaking.

Viviana Irizarry, 28, a criminal justice major at DCCC, has family in Las Marias, Puerto Rico who were affected by the earthquakes.

“It’s like a depression,” Viviana said.

She explained how her family was safe and no damage was done to their home, but they lost electricity and hot water for about a week after the quakes.

“After Hurricane Maria, it was a year before my family got power back,” Viviana said. “I am so glad it wasn’t as bad this time.”

Viviana’s sister, Rebecca Irizarry, 25, was visiting Puerto Rico with their family during the time of the earthquakes.

Rebecca shared how it reminded her of a horror movie.

“It was so intense,” Rebecca said, referencing the 6.4 magnitude quake. “It felt like somebody was shaking my bed and I was about to levitate.”

Rebecca didn’t bring any cash to Puerto Rico. It was challenging to find somewhere that would accept her debit card to buy food. Rebecca described how everyone was buying gas for generators, making it difficult to find gas to drive to the airport.

According to the Public Broadcasting Service, there is $200 million worth of damage to hundreds of homes and major power outages. Approximately 4,000 people are in shelters.
NPR reported that one person died and another eight injured in the first earthquake.

The USGS explained what happens under the surface during the earthquakes. The North American tectonic plate, a solid slab of rock which moves over the earth’s mantle, is converging with the Caribbean plate and Puerto Rico is being squeezed between the two plates.

In the northern area along the Puerto Rico trench, a deep cavity bordering a continent. The North America plate is being subducted, moving under another plate and sinking due to gravity, under the Caribbean plate.

In the south near Muertos Trough, the Caribbean plate is being subducted beneath the Puerto Rico plate.

Unlike the San Andreas Fault, the fault systems around Puerto Rico have not been studied as much, according to DCCC earth science professor Dr. Christopher Etherington.

“What we know is, because the plates are shifting and moving around right there, there is going to be pressure build up and somewhere it has to be released,” said DCCC geology professor Dr. Daniel Childers. “So at some point in time it has to shift.”

According to Etherington, Puerto Rico is along a fault zone with the North American plate to the north and the Caribbean plate to the south. The fault zone is Hispaniola, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Etherington said that there is a convergent boundary, one plate is going underneath the other, so there tends to be a lower recurrence interval than the transform boundary parts (when plates are sliding past one another).

“It’s unusual to have large earthquakes like that, but it’s not unexpected,” Etherington said.

Many news reports said the last time Puerto Rico has seen this many earthquakes so close together with this much intensity was in 1918.

“We are not good at predicting earthquakes at all,” Etherington said. “But once one happens, seismologists are able to look at how much energy was released from a single earthquake or even a subsequent earthquake, and they can make a guess on what can be expected from an aftershock and how large they might be.”

Etherington said the USGS can set up portable seismic stations allowing them to send information at the speed of light. Earthquakes are a little slower than these machines, which can help send automated signals to shut down pipelines or stop trains right before a tremor, preventing further damage and harm to the locals.

Childers also discussed how the seismic activity can settle down for years and then increase again in “little spurts.” He said that this is something scientists don’t have enough information on and are not good at predicting.

Both Childers and Etherington said this seismic activity won’t trigger any tsunamis. Etherington explained how tsunamis can be triggered by an earthquake, but the earthquake needs to be bigger than a 6.4 magnitude. He said the primary issue concerning people and the environment during an earthquake like this one is building structures and buried power lines.

According to Childers, the big issue is how the activity is affecting the people of Puerto Rico as they are rebuilding from the damage done from the hurricane, adding that Puerto Rico can expect more earthquakes to continue.

Viviana said since Hurricane Maria and now the earthquakes, many people are leaving the island because it is too hard to keep rebuilding and live in the conditions of the after effects.
Viviana described how her family suffers due to the poor state of the economy with no substantial work and school due to the natural disasters.

When it comes to construction, geologists play an important role, Etherington said, explaining how we need geologists in order to have a good understanding of the environment when building new construction.

Etherington said this is important when building in locations that experience earthquakes regularly. He also described how in places with a lot of seismic activity, like Alaska, pipelines are made specifically to handle the impact from earthquakes.

“My recommendation for anyone who is thinking about going into the field is to go to a couple of talks and see what geologists are doing and see what interests you,” Etherington said when referencing the Geological Society of America’s annual and regional meetings. “There are always good representatives from schools and external research groups, sort of like a job fair and school fair all in one.”

The American Geo-physical Union has information on current studies in geo-science and events as well as job reports and incomes.

Etherington has done re-search in the Bahamas in the Pacific Northwest and has a Bachelor of Science and Education in geology, a master’s in geoscience and a doctorate in higher education.

“It varies greatly depend- ing on where you want to end up,” Etherington said about a
career in geology and the geo-sciences.

“In some areas you are going to be doing mining and in some areas you are going to be doing
environmental remediation,” he said. “Around [Delaware County] here, you will mostly
be doing construction consulting.”

Childers said there are a lot of environmental jobs and government jobs, meteorology, mining, and oil industry and mineral resource jobs. He specializes in coastal geology.

“The skills you need are your basic math, chemistry, physics and geology,” Childers said.
“Geology is more than looking for rocks, minerals and oil.”

Childers has his master’s in earth science and his doctorate in geology. He said he has always enjoyed the outdoors and found his passion for the earth sciences when he was a teenager through a friend who was a soil scientist.

Childers has taught everything, including oceanography, earth science, astronomy, and meteorology.

“Right now a lot of the geoscientists are in the age of retirement,” Childers
said. “So, there theoretically may be more job openings. The potential for the field is
looking good.”

Childers spoke on how in the geological field a person will spend the first part
of their career out in the field and then, with more experience, working an office job
making more money.

“Geology is the opportunity to travel and live all over the world if you are in the
right company and doing the right thing,” Childers said. “It could be good money and is
great when you’re young, but involves alot of travel.”

There are earth science and geology classes available in the spring, summer, and
fall semesters to anyone interested in pursuing a career in earth science or
possessing greater environmental understanding.

For the foreseeable future, families like the Irizarry’s will continue to face the threat of natural disasters. Viviana said she’s afraid for her family.

“With the latest earthquake in the Caribbean concerning Jamaica and Cuba, it becomes ridiculous and scary that we have to fear that at any moment, anyone I love can be taken away,” Viviana said.

In March, there will be a Geological Society of America conference in Virginia about the latest geology studies and technology for all those interested in attending. Contact the earth science department for more information.

Contact Amy Grace Drinkwater at

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