Recent earthquakes may further traumatize Puerto Ricans

William Mercuchi and his daughter Joan pose for photos in front of their house that collapsed after the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that struck Yauco, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7. Photo: Associated Press

By Barbara Gutierrez

William Mercuchi and his daughter Joan pose for photos in front of their house that collapsed after the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that struck Yauco, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7. Photo: Associated Press

Recent earthquakes may further traumatize Puerto Ricans

By Barbara Gutierrez
The destruction throughout portions of southwestern Puerto Rico brings back memories of the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Thousands of frightened Puerto Ricans are sleeping outside their homes or in shelters in the southwest part of the island in the aftermath of two strong earthquakes and continued aftershocks that rocked the region and left many without electricity and with limited food and water. More tremors are expected.

Many of the earthquake victims went through the traumatic effects of Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in September 2017, devastating a large part of the island and killing almost 3,000 people. More than 75,000 Puerto Ricans left the island and moved to the U.S. mainland in the aftermath. 

This latest catastrophic blow will only serve to open old wounds, said Seth Schwartz, professor of public health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“If you already have been through something traumatic then it does not take much to reactivate that,” said Schwartz, who led a study in 2019 of the Puerto Rican families who settled in South Florida and found that the effects of hurricane-related stress and trauma led to mental health conditions that included anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

Schwartz said that many of the current victims were part of a community that had been affected by Hurricane Maria less than three years ago and were still in the process of rebuilding their lives. Now the unpredictability of the earthquakes is making the experience even more scary and unsettling than the hurricane.

“These people will have double PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” Schwartz said. “Soon many will develop the classic symptoms of the disorder, which include irritability, hypervigilance, and anxiety. In some cases, they will have intrusive re-experiencing of the trauma where they cannot stop thinking about the event. These symptoms can disrupt their everyday lives and their relationships with others,”

Although the immediate needs of the earthquake victims include safe housing, Schwartz believes that a comprehensive mental health plan also needs to be developed.

“Trauma does not disappear,” he said. In order to help these people, Schwartz hopes local governments will set up mental health clinics in schools, community centers, and town halls. He also believes that online interventions can help victims receive counseling. “There may be others who would need individualized counseling sessions as well,” he said.

Schwartz also anticipates that many Puerto Ricans might leave the island after this disaster and head to Florida. The number may not be as large as it was after Hurricane Maria. But he has asked the National Institutes of Health for additional funds to study this group of earthquake victims once they settle in Florida.