Puerto Rico Winter Break 2020

A missionary group from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center visited Puerto Rico over winter break when the island experienced massive earthquakes.

Although Purdue and Puerto Rico are separated by almost 2,000 miles of land and sea, some Purdue alumni and community members experienced the physical, economic and emotional toll of recent earthquakes there.

Patrick Baikauskas, a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, was on a mission trip with a group of Purdue students when the earthquakes struck. The group stayed in regions near the epicenter of the earthquake, including Ponce, Guánica and Yauco.

Baikauskas described the earthquakes as ongoing for the duration of their stay. He said the strongest earthquake they experienced registered a 5.6 on the Richter scale. They left just a few days before the strongest earthquake thus far occurred, which registered 6.5 on the scale. Each whole-number increase on the Richter scale represents a tenfold increase in earthquake strength.

“People are now, for the most part, living in tents,” he said about the areas he visited. “They’re afraid of the buildings collapsing on them.”

He said the group plans to return to Puerto Rico over spring break in March to further help.

Ileana Roman, a Purdue alumna who was living in Ponce during the earthquakes, echoed Baikauskas’ descriptions as she narrated her own experience of the earthquake.

“We are unable to sleep. We have bags under our eyes. We are so nervous that even if something falls on the floor, we jump,” Roman said. “We’re nervous. We haven’t had rest.”

Roman said she left Puerto Rico to rest for a few weeks in Florida shortly after the earthquakes because she could not deal with the constant tremors.

But Brigitte Viellieu-Davis and Douglas Davis, Purdue alumni who moved to Puerto Rico several months ago, only felt minor tremors from their locations in the capital, San Juan.

Viellieu-Davis said tourism to Puerto Rico has been negatively affected by media coverage of the recent disasters, even though the earthquake damage was mostly confined to the southwestern regions of the island.

“Tourism has really been suffering because of this focus on the most disastrous photos,” Viellieu-Davis said. “I don’t want to minimize the fact that in these towns down south, people have lost homes. ... It’s like the equivalent of Indianapolis is having some problems, and everyone is canceling their trips to Chicago.”

Viellieu-Davis said Purdue alumni in Puerto Rico she’s spoken to are eager for people to visit the island. She said the negative media coverage caused Purdue’s Black Cultural Center to cancel a trip to San Juan planned for March because many of those who registered backed out after the earthquakes.

“We have 11 campuses across the island, including three very close to the affected area,” said Jorge Haddock, a Purdue alumnus and president of the University of Puerto Rico. “There are no major damages on any of our campuses.”

He said the buildings and houses that did collapse during the earthquakes did not satisfy building code.

Roman said it’s true that most of the island was not damaged by the earthquakes.

“When hurricanes go through the Gulf of Mexico and they go to Houston, people still fly to Dallas, or San Antonio,” she said. “Food is fresh, restaurants are open, hotels are open, the tropical rainforest is open for business. Everything in the north and east and southeast of the island is working.”

Roman said the emergency response from fellow Puerto Ricans has been amazing. She recounted how one doctor pitched tents to tend to people affected by the earthquakes in Ponce. She said Puerto Ricans tend to band together in times of disaster.

She had tougher words about the Puerto Rican government’s response to the emergency.

“They could have done a better job,” Roman said. “There was a warehouse with tons of supplies that nobody opened and distributed and people were outraged. ... The warehouse was in Ponce.”

The warehouse’s supplies have since been distributed and several of Puerto Rico’s top officials were fired or have resigned, according to ABC News. But Roman also said the U.S. government could have offered more support for Puerto Rico during the natural disasters. She said it is disheartening that the U.S. government treats Puerto Ricans like second-class citizens.

“If I lived in Florida, I would be able to vote,” she said. “But when you are a resident in Puerto Rico, you cannot vote for the U.S. president.”

She said despite how the U.S. government treats Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans still feel American.

“We’re American,” she said. “We’re just a different kind of American. Like Hawaii, like Alaska. We just never made it to become a state.”

She said that any help that the mainland could offer, like engineers, geologists, meteorologists or other experts would be appreciated.

“Come and visit,” Roman said. “We are very hospitable.”

Recommended for you