(CNN) — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico in response to the earthquakes.
“We are concerned about potential impacts of this week’s earthquakes on the lives of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Across HHS, we have worked closely with the territory’s health and human services authorities on disaster recovery, and will continue to do everything we can to help ensure the health and well-being of people across the island,” he said.
Power has now been restored to 550,000 homes in Puerto Rico, about 33% of the customers across the island. At least 75% of homes are expected to have power by the weekend, the Electric Energy Authority said.
A 6.4 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday was the strongest and likely the most damaging of hundreds of temblors that have struck the island since December 28. It hit before dawn, leaving a man dead and causing dozens of homes and structures to crumble.
It was centered off Puerto Rico’s southern coast, six miles south of Indios. Terrified of sleeping indoors as aftershocks continue, neighbors put mattresses in their front yards while others spent the night under white tents and tarps.
Noelia de Jesus has been sleeping at an outdoors shelter with her granddaughters, terrified of returning to her Guanica home.
It’s the third time that a natural disaster leaves her without a place to live. Like her, many Puerto Ricans lost their homes when Hurricane Maria hit the island two years ago and Hurricane George struck in 1998.
Worse than Maria, some say
Residents and officials have repeatedly said the impact from the quakes surpasses the devastation that Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm when it hit the island, delivered two years ago.
“With the hurricane, you knew when and at what time it would arrive,” Guayanilla resident Tatiana Rodriguez, 28, said, adding of the quakes, “This, you don’t know at what time it’s going to happen.”
The town of 18,000 located near the southern coast hasn’t been getting regular updates, she said. Residents are disinclined to leave their homes because they don’t know what areas are safe. Rodriguez worries that recovery will be difficult, especially for those hit hard by Maria, she said.
“There are a lot of people that started from zero because of Maria,” she said. “(They’re) starting again from zero.”
Classes have not resumed
Classes won’t resume across the island until crews inspect all schools and confirm buildings are safe for students, education officials announced.
The Agripina Seda School in Guanica suffered major damage, including a partially collapsed, three-story building.
“Classes in the public school system won’t resume until a total evaluation of all campuses,” Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez tweeted, adding that teachers and staff won’t return to the schools until further notice.
The earthquakes come after Hurricane Maria devastated the US territory in September 2017. Many in southern Puerto Rico said the earthquakes’ damage was worse.
“There’s no warnings for this,” Puerto Rico Police Commissioner Henry Escalera said of the earthquakes. “A hurricane gives us time to plan ahead.”
When asked what concerns him the most about the quakes’ aftermath, he said, “That homes will not be safe to live in and the possibility of a collapse that will cause a person’s death or serious injuries.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced aid has been made available to supplement local response efforts.
President Donald Trump’s action authorizes FEMA to coordinate all disaster relief efforts and provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures to save lives and protect property.