Guest column Jonathan Wright: Puerto Rican quake rattles nerves, sparks friendship

  • Volunteers paint a house in Loiza, Puerto Rico, as part of Proyecto MONALISA, an effort to repaint all of the buildings around an historic square. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Volunteers paint a salmon house belonging to Ana Luz as part of Proyecto MONALISA, an effort to repaint all of the buildings around an historic square in Loiza, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Jonathan Wright of Northampton paints a house in Loiza, Puerto Rico, as part of an effort called Proyecto MONALISA to repaint all of the buildings around a historic square. JONATHAN WRIGHT

Published: 2/13/2020 3:33:25 PM
Modified: 2/13/2020 3:33:15 PM

When the bed began to shudder in our Puerto Rico vacation condo, it was 4:28 a.m. The bed moved side to side again, then up and down. The lamp shades shifted and the finials rattled.

My wife Meg started awake and asked, “what’s happening?” The movement, now up and down more, continued in waves. The lights flickered once, and then all was dark and still.

This was a magnitude 6.0 earthquake with its epicenter 60 miles away Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, that most thought was the main shock. Outside, the only sound was of palm fronds clacking and Casuarina pines softly whispering in the wind. Out on our balcony, with all the power off, the cumulous clouds billowed around a crescent moon, and it was light enough to read.

Our 15-year-old buildings are stiff and sturdy, and, like most of the island, were largely unaffected. We waited for first light thinking about the sheer force that would move thousands of cubic miles of rock like a bowl of cornflakes. We knew this would become a very different vacation time, culminating in an inspirational service opportunity.

The major aftershock at about 7 a.m. was 6.4, near the south coast, in Guanica, and toppled the early 19th century church that had survived the 1917 magnitude 7.3 quake.

Venturing out we found long lines at gas stations as people filled cars and jerry cans for generators. Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans, spent millions after Hurricane Maria on generators, and everywhere they were whining and whirring to life.

With major storms there is warning. Earthquakes and their days of aftershocks are unannounced. People were huddled in yards and sidewalks, afraid to go back inside. It reminded them of the horror of Maria, bringing a refreshed panic.

Earthquake magnitudes are measures of earthquake size calculated from ground motion recorded by seismometers. Every increase of 0.2 is a doubling of the intensity. Thus, the 6.4 aftershock was four times as powerful as the prior supposed main shock.

Officials in Washington, D.C. had not a word of encouragement. It took more than a day for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be authorized, bringing back anguished memories of President Trump dispensing paper towels, and the whole dispiriting and disgraceful Maria response. On a brighter note, California stepped up and sent about 40 of its most experienced seismic experts to help with the recovery around Guayanilla.

Press reports mentioned faulty school construction. Mainlanders should remember that even Massachusetts did not have a meaningful seismic code until the 1980s. As for the schools, well, most were built with U.S. federal assistance and to applicable federal standards.

In the early 18th century, a 6.4 quake of the magnitude of the Guanica aftershock last month, destroyed much of Boston. Check the mirror before pointing a finger.

I decided not to travel to Guayanilla and Guanica, relying rather on reports from residents who came to the northern shore, where our place is, for respite. The last thing needed in the south was another white man taking pictures and peering in to people’s lives.

The power came back on gradually over three days. We went to dinner at the local fish restaurant, and there was our friend Rumi, whom we have known for more than 10 years. Now 30, she is no longer a waitress but the tourism director for this poor, very African, coastal community.

She briefed us on evacuation procedures and then mentioned that there was a three-day volunteer painting effort beginning in the main square at 8 the next morning, where teams would be continuing the restoration of the town center. Well, I thought, that’s something I can help with!

After Hurricane Maria, Aesara Consulting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, teamed up with Loiza Mayor Julia Navario for a long-term commitment — real work twice a year. After three years, Aesara’s staff have worked with volunteers to repaint all of the buildings around Loiza’s historic square called Proyecto MONALISA. It is here that all arriving slaves since the early 17th century were auctioned for the nearby plantations.

Proyecto MONALISA is the project whimsical name. The Martin Luther King weekend task was to paint 14 additional private houses on the main streets. Word traveled fast, and newly arriving tourists and locals alike showed up to help. Sissi Pham from Aesara provided leadership for their wonderful team. There is nothing like getting dirty together doing good work to spark friendship!

Bill Robbins from GP Global coordinated all the gear and supplies as a volunteer. The colors were selected by a local architect, all to amazing effect. Residents brought delicious lunch foods, offered homemade gelato, cold soda and the best smiles on the planet.

Bill taught me a bit about the obstacles to restoration Puerto Rico. There are five FEMA regulatory application steps leading up to approval of a restoration project. The projects are paid for after completion and payment can take many months.

So, his firm, for a significant and necessary share of the money, does all the planning, applications, engineering, logistics and estimating. They can then hire mostly local contractors and pay them weekly, and then wait for their money for half a year or more.

The town of Loiza, with its small staff, few computers and lack of engineering staff, could not do any of this.

My last two days of this trip were a wonderful salve — doing something concrete and useful. Tears, sweat, hugs, music and late afternoon Medala beer flowed as we worked together to help make Loiza beautiful again. Each resident got paint for maintenance.

The change is compelling, and the care is deeply felt in all directions. I can’t wait to go back. Here in western Massachusetts, the best lesson is to care for each other and our communities as the Puerto Ricans do, with love and generosity to spare.

Jonathan Wright lives in Northampton.
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