Alicia Meléndez is 75 years old. (Gerald López Cepero)

Peñuelas - Alicia Meléndez is 75 years old, her house is damaged, her pension barely reaches $800 a month and she has a mortgage that is half her income.

Her possibilities to work her way out of poverty are limited. Her husband, Carmelo Rodríguez, 79, has Alzheimer's disease. She once had a part-time job, about four hours a day, which would not yield many benefits if she were to go back to it.

"It's not enough to fix that house," said the woman, who is now living in the camp set up at the Glidden Feliciano athletic track, in Peñuelas, and who lives in the Tallaboa Encarnación neighborhood in the same municipality.

Meléndez said she experienced a similar situation when Hurricane María “destroyed” her home in 2017. On that occasion, she requested disaster assistance from the federal government but was denied it.

"My house was already destroyed by (Hurricane) María and I was not granted assistance. My house is patched up... My son repaired it, he did it as best as he could, and now it's about to collapse," Meléndez said.

"I will ask for (assistance) because I need it. If I didn't need it, fine, but I need it... If they fix my house, I'll stay where I am," she added, referring to the assistance to affected families by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Meléndez describes a scenario that repeats over and over throughout the island's southwestern area. This region is not only the closest to the epicenter of the January 7 earthquake, but also one of the poorest in Puerto Rico confirmed economist José Caraballo Cueto and sociologist and poverty expert Linda Colón Reyes.

The 2018 Community Survey estimated that in 28 of the neighborhoods closest to the earthquake´s epicenter, half of the families have incomes below federal poverty standards. In 2018, someone with an income of $12,140 a year, or a single mother with an income of less than $16,460 a year, were considered poor.

In some cases, economic needs in this area are terrible. For example, in the Susúa Baja neighborhood in Guánica, eight out of 10 families live in poverty. The same happens in the Rufina neighborhood in Guayanilla.

"That's one of the poorest areas of the island. Guánica, Guayanilla, Maricao, Peñuelas... that whole southwestern region is always among the poorest areas," said Colón Reyes.

"The common denominator in the region (in socioeconomic terms) is that more than half of the people are poor, and in the case of children, at least 57 percent are poor and Guánica is the poorest municipality in the region, in Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories," Caraballo Cueto explained.

Poverty is increasing among families with children. CaraballoCueto pointed out that, for example, child poverty in Guánica reaches 83 percent. Meanwhile, Peñuelas, Ponce and Guayanilla have child poverty rates of 69 percent (seven out of 10). The rate for all of Puerto Rico is 57 percent.

The total damage caused by the earthquake and its aftershocks have not been fully assessed. On Friday, the head of the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience, Ottmar Chávez, said the earthquake and its aftershocks have caused damage of at least $200 million. That estimate does not include losses in public infrastructures, such as the Costa Sur power plant, government buildings and dams, which are still under evaluation. The figure is based mainly on more than 800 residential inspections in the area affected by the earthquake.

Economist José Alameda recently estimated that economic losses between the day the earthquake hit the island and tomorrow, January 20, could total at least $1.356 billion.

"This is a big capital loss. There is no way to replace this because many (of those affected) are elderly and their life savings were their homes," Colón Reyes said.

Suspended in time

The sociologist explained that the economy of this region was historically based on agriculture. By the mid 19th century, when Puerto Rico's industrialization process began, this area was far from being a favorite for multinational manufacturers. The exodus of factories, along with the end of federal incentives under Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, in 2006, destroyed much of the industrial production that these municipalities managed to reach.

"Historically, industrialization did not reach this area because they were sugarcane areas and when sugarcane disappeared, the economy was affected. Some towns moved to tourism to create jobs, but it was never enough to get out of poverty. These are areas that have been marginalized. It is a sector that has been left on the sidelines," said Colón Reyes.

The consequences of this economic abyss have translated into very high unemployment rates, an indicator that mainly measures the number of people actively looking for a job in a given jurisdiction.

In Guánica, for example, the unemployment rate is about 31.2 percent; in Guayanilla, 23.9 percent; in Peñuelas, 23.3 percent, and Yauco, 24 percent, said Caraballo Cueto, Director of the Census Information Center at University of Puerto Rico Cayey Campus.

Ponce, on the other hand, although with a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the towns in the affected region, has levels of inequality that result in 52 percent of its inhabitants living in poverty.

In Ciudad Señorial, the GINI coefficient of inequality is 0.59 (the closer to 1, the more unequal), the third-highest for a town, after San Juan and Mayagüez. In 2017, all of Puerto Rico had a 0.55, according to Census data. This placed Puerto Rico as the third most unequal jurisdiction on the planet, according to World Bank data.

In environmental terms, this region also carries much of the industrial pollution generated in Puerto Rico. Two of the island´s most important power plants, Costa Sur and EcoElectrica- are located between Peñuelas and Guayanilla, for example. In the past, the area also was home to the island's largest oil complex, whose ruins seemed to have withstood the earthquakes. In recent years, the Peñuelas landfill received coal ash generated by coal-burning at AES Puerto Rico, a situation that unleashed an important environmental struggle.

"It is scandalous that this is such a poor area when a large part of the island's energy is produced there. They have to deal with pollution, but those who live in these towns do not receive the benefits," said Caraballo Cueto.

How can we change that?

For Colón Reyes, the first step to mitigate the area's problems, especially in times of natural disasters such as those we are currently experiencing, is by stabilizing public and residential infrastructure with emergency and reconstruction funds. Similarly, she said government leaders must consider economic needs in decision-making processes.

"Housing is the first area that needs to be stabilized. We have to get people out of risk areas and develop good planning for those (reconstruction) funds so that everything results in benefits in the medium and long term and economic isolation ends," Colón Reyes said.

"Here, the loss of capital was significant. Having their own homes was one of the most valuable things for the people. Residences were made of concrete to withstand hurricanes, but we didn't think an earthquake would destroy the houses. María ripped out the roof off the poorest, and now the earthquake came and destroyed the resources they had left after the hurricane. We had an earthquake here and it hit us hard," said the sociologist.

Caraballo Cueto described the economic isolation, stating that the affected municipalities, except Ponce, are those that generate less than 1 percent of the goods and services produced on the island.

"Here, we need policies to create jobs and reduce those disgraceful levels of poverty. It is disgraceful that we have a town with 8 out of 10 children in poverty," the economist said.

Since the January 7 earthquake, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) detected 622 earthquakes on the island. Of that total, only 19 (3 percent) with a magnitude of 4.5 or more.

The USGS estimates, with an 80 percent probability, that the aftershocks will become less frequent over time, with no earthquake larger than a magnitude 6.4, likethe one of January 7.

There is only a 3 percent chance of a magnitude 6.4 or greater aftershock.

The earthquakes have led thousands of people to seek shelter and left hundreds of houses uninhabitable because of the structural damage they suffered.

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