Shaky Spaces: January 2020 Observations on Camps in Southern Puerto Rico

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The recent clusters of earthquakes along the southern coast of Puerto Rico have added immense chaos to an already unstable part of the United States. As part of our work in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, we got to make first hand observations at multiple locations in three of the most impacted areas ocer the week of Martin Luther King Day. #UBLawResponds will be doing a deeper analysis in the coming months, but I offer some initial thoughts here on the various post-earthquake “camps” that exist now in southern Puerto Rico.

People are “camping” in different ways following the earthquakes. There are some in official camps run by the government. There are some in camps organized by local communities. There are some that have popped up in neighborhoods. And then there are many (way too many) people “camping” in front of their homes.

Camps in front of homes
Local camp not organized by the government
Government organized camp

Then there are the adjacent “base camps” that serve as command centers and house the federal workers (including military and national guard) in five locations: Yauco, Guanica, Penuelas, Guayanilla, and Ponce. More than 1,300 military personnel join FEMA and Homeland Security to work with local officials in each area.


#UBLawResponds team members with a local member of the military providing essential services.

While sharing the name “disaster,” earthquakes are very different than the 2017 hurricanes. Those caused huge damage and disrupted life for months across all of Puerto Rico…yet once they had passed, people could focus on recovery. Earthquakes continue, creating constant anxiety and fear that impacts all the people of the area. One saving grace is that the internet is available (unlike the aftermath of Hurricane Maria), and connecting with friends and family. Locals reported not just relying on Puerto Rico news sites, but hearing firsthand on social media, as a lifeline for accurate and comforting information (such as dispelling rumors that Tsunamis were happening when they were not).

How will the situation facing Puerto Rico’s southern coast develop from here? There are too many unknowns for a definitive answer: continuing earthquakes, political unrest, lack of appropriate supplies, insufficient information on actual needs, etc..

But I am developing an initial idea as to what needs to happen on a collective scale as we figure out how to best address these shaky times. Those who are dedicated to resiliency in Puerto Rico (and beyond) must learn from this experience. Those in a position to assist (including all levels of the government) must commit to community-centered work fed by bottom-up ideas from those living the disaster as to what is needed in shaky situations. We must weave deep collaborations across many disciplines that combine quick responses with deep listening and long-term planning.

The #UBLawResponds team stands ready to (1) assist with legal and policy issues in the aftermath of the earthquakes, (2) continue to assist with legal and policy issues in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, (3) provide assistance in any other way we reasonably can from afar, and (4) work with the RISE network and others collaborating to re-conceptualize how those in the university environment can be of most service (while educating students). This last approach is essential, as the world of disaster response evolves at an ever increasing rate in this time of climate change.


To support students in doing this front-line work, you can donate here.

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