A pair of powerful earthquakes struck Puerto Rico on Monday, 6 January and Tuesday, 7 January – knocking out power, damaging homes and schools, displacing residents, and killing at least one. 

A tourist snaps a selfie at the ruins of the Guánica lighthouse, which was further damaged by the 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico
The ruins of the Guánica lighthouse after the 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico collapsed one of the historic walls © RICARDO ARDUENGO

The first earthquake jolted the island Monday at 6:32 a.m. local time at 5.8 magnitude on the Richter scale, with smaller aftershocks continuing throughout the day. Then another, larger quake struck at 4:24 am local time Tuesday morning. That quake registered at a magnitude of 6.4 – the strongest to hit Puerto Rico since the 1918 San Fermín quake struck the northwestern coast at a magnitude of 7.1. The pair of recent quakes badly damaged several tourist attractions, including the Ruinas del Faro La Ponderosa near Borinquen, the historic Inmaculada Concepcion church, and the iconic natural stone arch known as Punta Ventana. The capital of San Juan was outside the area seriously affected, however, and there are no reports of major damage.

However, power and water outages have occurred around the country. The UK's Foreign Commonwealth Office advises that travelers "should monitor developments on the US Geological Survey website and follow the advice of the local authorities". All travelers should check with their relevant government for advice before traveling. 

Ruinas del Faro, Inmaculada Concepcion, and Punta Ventana

The Colonial-era Guánica Lighthouse was already partially ruined by storms and the ravages of time but had been added to the US register of historic places in 1981. The quakes collapsed one of the exterior walls surrounding the central tower – which somehow survived despite being so close to the epicenter. Meanwhile in Guayanilla, on the southwestern side of the island, the Inmaculada Concepcion church partially collapsed in the quake. Locals quickly salvaged what they could from the rubble of the Colonial-era house of worship, including statuary of the saints and other religious icons.

Read more: Malta’s collapsed Azure Window rock arch has found a new purpose as a top dive site

After a 4.7 magnitude earthquake on 28 December, some Puerto Ricans familiar with the Punta Ventana (Window Point) arch in Guayanilla were concerned it was in danger of collapse, especially as a series of smaller tremors continued in the weeks following. Those fears came to fruition on Monday during the first earthquake, when the natural wonder was turned to rubble.

The front facade of this Catholic Church in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico is surrounded by rubble after the 2020 earthquakes
This church, built in 1841, was destroyed in the 2020 Puerto Rico earthquakes, though parishioners were able to salvage statues of the saints © Eric Rojas / Stringer via Getty Images

Did the Puerto Rico Earthquake disrupt travel and transit?

Despite the loss of these attractions, Discover Puerto Rico has assured tourists in a brief released on Tuesday, 7 January that visitors shouldn’t be too concerned about the quake affecting their travel plans – even for those planning to arrive the week of the disaster. 

Cruise lines that call at the port in San Juan are not altering their itineraries, and as a precaution, the US Coast Guard is currently inspecting ports and docks. Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival have released statements ensuring passengers of continuity of service despite the quakes. As for smaller vessels, after a brief pause in ferry service to Vieques and Culebra, these routes have already returned to their normal operating schedules.

A tweet Wednesday morning by the San Juan Airport’s official account confirmed that power had been restored and that operations were continuing as normal. Ponce and Aguadilla airports are also fully operational, though passengers are advised to arrive at all Puerto Rican airports two-three hours prior to boarding time, as they may be busier than usual.

For passengers whose travel plans may have been impacted by the earthquakes or who hope to reschedule, several airlines are offering flexible rescheduling policies – typically for passengers who booked prior to the earthquakes and who rebook travel prior to a certain cutoff date. Those airlines include Delta, United, Southwest, American Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit, and Frontier

The collapsed rubble of what was once a natural sea arch known as Punta Ventana in Puerto Rico
A natural sea arch known as Punta Ventana was lost in the 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico © RICARDO ARDUENGO via Getty Images

Will there be another Puerto Rico earthquake?

The US Geological Survey is currently monitoring the seismic situation in Puerto Rico to determine how long aftershocks may continue, and how strongly they may be felt. However, there is little evidence another strong earthquake is likely to occur. According to a statement posted to the USGS website, “the current forecast, issued at 15:24 eastern on Jan 7, 2020, estimates that over the next one week there is a 7% chance of one or more aftershocks that are larger than magnitude 6.4.”

The pair of quakes were caused by the island of Puerto Rico being squeezed between the North American and Caribbean plates as the former subducts, or dives under, the later. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Plate is also colliding with the comparatively small Caribbean Plate, forming the Puerto Rican Trench. The pressure of all those plates bumping up against one another creates a lot of earthquakes, including some that are big enough and shallow enough to be felt on land instead of far under the ocean.

Earthquakes have recently been the least of Puerto Rico’s problems, however. The US territory was deeply affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017 – the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century. In the nearly two-and-a-half years since Maria, however, Puerto Rico has shown its resiliency. Despite the devastation, popular hotels have reopened, new resorts and glampgrounds have opened (many with an emphasis on eco-tourism) and Puerto Rican restaurants and bars continue to show off the island's culinary chops.

Read more: 

How sustainable tourism is thriving in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria

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