The 1918 San Fermin Earthquake and Tsunami in Ponce, Puerto Rico
A few years back, on the last day of my vacation on the island of St. Lucia, Hurricane Sandy was reported to make a direct hit on the island. My friend and I flew out that day with the hurricane at our heels. The intense turbulence during our flight to Miami was terrifying, and I prayed all the way to Miami. When we left Miami for Washington, DC, the hurricane followed us up the east coast. In 1987, when my daughter was two and I was pregnant with my son, we experienced an earthquake in San Francisco that shook the ground beneath our feet. Two years ago, a derecho, a wall of wind several miles long, hit my large West Virginia town, knocking down two trees in my yard, and ripping off the roof of a large warehouse on the corner of my street. The debris sailed over my parked car, landed on the train tracks down the street, and downed power lines on the hottest day that summer. It took weeks to clear our town’s streets, yards, and sidewalks of storm debris.
I don’t relish the thought of a repeat of those natural disasters. They were terrifying experiences, but at the same time, the immense power of nature fascinates me. I must admit to enjoying film clips of many natural phenomena around the world. I don’t know why that is, and my sister shares my fascination. We seem to love what frightens us, and Puerto Rico, the island of my birth, has experienced many earthquakes and devastating hurricanes over the years. It’s just life in the Caribbean.
In this excerpt of my historical novel, A Decent Woman, my characters, the newlyweds Antonio and Serafina San Patricio, are enjoying their almuerzo, lunch, in their new home when an earthquake hits, sending two aftershocks through the city of Ponce. The real 1918 San Fermin earthquake hit the downtown area of Ponce hardest, especially the Plaza where the twin towers of the Ponce Cathedral collapsed, and the Teatro La Perla, a beautiful old theater, was destroyed. An hour later, a tsunami was reported in the northwest coast of Puerto Rico with twenty foot waves. Many small coastal villages were destroyed and 120 people died.
“Don’t move, Serafina; it could start up again.” Seconds later, their fear turned to horror as the floor shook as if they were in a boat on stormy seas. The bone china dishes, serving pieces, and crystal glasses were tossed about on the table above them, and Serafina wondered if the dead wife was unpleased and making her presence known. She screamed and hid her face in Antonio’s suit jacket, when an oil painting rattled against the wall and then crashed to the floor, sending splinters of wood from the broken frame through the air. They heard a giant boom inside the house, Antonio opened his eyes just in time to see the heavy dining room armoire topple over, filling their ears with the deafening sounds of broken glass and porcelain. Serafina began to cry, knowing they would die.
Seconds later, the rumbles subsided. Serafina looked at Antonio for answers, and sensed a fear as deep as her own in his eyes. He brushed dust and dirt particles from her hair, and brought her close. “Antonio, do you think Lorena and Mateo are safe in San Juan with your parents? We must call them!”
“I don’t know if San Juan was hit by the earthquake; I’ll try the phone before the phone lines go dead.” After a few minutes, he scrambled out from under the dining room table, and ran to the phone. Miraculously, his father answered the phone, and confirmed that they were all right. “They’re fine, Serafina! Please don’t worry now; it won’t be good for the baby.” Antonio ran to the front door, leaving Serafina trembling, but relieved beneath the table. He pulled open the door, and waved away a plume of smoke. What he saw was a world much different than what he’d seen before closing the door to enjoy the noonday meal with his new bride. “Dios mío,” he whispered. The houses on Calle Luna were barely visible through the thick haze of smoke and dust.
Serafina tentatively crawled out from under the table. “I can’t believe this just happened,” she muttered in a daze, looking at black tea and red wine stains on the fine, white damask tablecloth that covered the table. “Oh Antonio, your mother will be so upset when she sees the stains on her wedding gift,” she said to no one in particular as she gingerly picked up broken shards of crystal.
“Serafina, come look!” She took tentative steps toward Antonio and stopped. “Come, it’s all right.” He motioned for Serafina to approach. “It’s over now.” She hugged his waist, and grimaced at the smells outside. Across the street, the elementary school seemed intact, save for the concrete wall in front that lay in a crumbled heap on the sidewalk. The school’s wooden sign hung precariously from one nail. There were downed power lines up the street, and billowing clouds of dust in the distance toward the city center. “Live wires,” said Antonio said. When he looked back at the school, he remembered it was lunchtime. “I hope the children went home for lunch.”