For an island that is used to preparing for tropical hurricanes, the tremors sparked a wave of panic as they have increased in strength since they began almost two weeks ago.
Nearly 750 people were staying in government shelters on the island’s south-west region as Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard.
The hardest hit municipality was the south-west coastal town of Guanica. More than 200 people had taken shelter in a gymnasium after a quake on Monday, only for the latest quake to damage that structure – forcing them to sleep outside.
Among them was 80-year-old Lupita Martinez, who sat in the dusty parking lot with her 96-year-old husband by her side. He was sleeping in a makeshift bed, a dark blue coat covering him.
“There’s no power. There’s no water. There is nothing. This is horrible,” Martinez said.
The couple was alone, lamenting that their caretaker had disappeared and was not answering their calls. Like many Puerto Ricans affected by the quake, they had children in the US mainland who urged them to move there, at least until the earth stops shaking.
While officials said it was too early to estimate the total damage caused by the string of quakes that began on the night of December 28, they said hundreds of homes and businesses in the south-west region were damaged or destroyed. Just in Guanica, a town of roughly 15,000 people, nearly 150 homes were affected by the quake, along with three schools.
“We are confronting a crisis worse than Hurricane Maria,” said Mayor Santos Seda, referring to the 2017 storm that devastated the island. “I am asking for empathy from the federal government.”
He said officials believe the homes of 700 families in his municipality were close to collapsing.
Tuesday’s quake was the strongest to hit Puerto Rico since October 1918, when a magnitude 7.3 quake struck near the island’s northwest coast, unleashing a tsunami and killing 116 people.
More than 950 quakes and aftershocks have been recorded in the area of Tuesday night’s event since December 31, though most were too weak to be felt, according to US Geologic Survey.
The USGS said that while it was virtually certain there will be many aftershocks in the next week, the chance of a magnitude 6 quake or stronger was around 22 per cent.
Meanwhile, a handful of people slept in their cars, in chairs or on the ground as cots ran out.
“Now I’m afraid of the house,” said 49-year-old Lourdes Guilbe as she wiped away tears and confided that she felt overwhelmed caring for the nearly a dozen relatives gathered around her, including her more than 90-year-old grandfather, who sat in a wheelchair wearing green pyjamas and socks.
Guilbe said her home was cracked and her daughter’s home collapsed, so they weren’t sure where they would live in upcoming days.
Hurricane Maria caused an estimated 2975 deaths and more than $US100 billion in estimated damage.
Reconstruction has been slow, and the earthquake was the newest blow to an island where thousands of people have been living under a blue tarps since the hurricane and the power grid remains fragile.
“I can’t stand this,”said 64-year-old Zenaida Rodriguez as she sat under a tree and the ground again rumbled. “Did you feel that?”