With future unknown, couple displaced by Puerto Rico earthquake returns to Utah

Local News

KAYSVILLE (ABC4 News) – With aftershocks continuing in Puerto Rico, a Utah couple is back in Kaysville to stay with family until conditions are safe. A 6.4 magnitude earthquake displaced them after striking the Southern coast, just 45 minutes from where they were living in the City of Ponce.

Montana native Mitchell Streiff first met his wife, Elise, when he was a student at the University of Utah. They moved to Puerto Rico a year and a half ago after he was accepted to medical school.

“We’ve loved it. We’ve loved everything about it. We’re kind of adventurous and love the outdoors. We loved having people visit us. We loved going around. It’s been hard not being there,” said Elise.

The couple said residents were not typically concerned about earthquakes, as they were more susceptible to hurricanes, such as Hurricane Maria, which devastated the region in September 2017 and caused more than 3,000 deaths. But on December 28th, Mitchell and Elise said residents began feeling small trembles, which ultimately led to the 6.4 magnitude earthquake on January 7th.

“It was 4:30 a.m. and we were dead asleep, which added to the chaos. When you wake up and your building is shaking, you’re confused,” said Elise. “Our bookshelves were shaking, glass was shattering, lamps had fallen. Everything had crashed. It was very chaotic and scary. It was apocalyptic. It felt like a movie.”

Mitchell said the pair lived on the top floor of a 12-story apartment building and raced down the stairs to get to safety.

“The earthquake was probably only 30 seconds, but it felt like forever. When we were walking through the halls, everything was shaking so we were stumbling. We couldn’t walk straight,” said Mitchell. “We heard a loud sound like a crack or crash and then the whole city just went black when the power went out.”

The earthquake caused cracks throughout the walls and ceilings. While their apartment building is still standing, the Streiffs said engineers have advised them to stay away until they’re able to check on its livability. But with the aftershocks, they said it has not been safe for engineers to enter and accurately assess the damage.

“We were homeless and staying with friends, but it was not a good permanent solution.,” said Elise. “We never thought there would be an earthquake of this magnitude. No one warned us. No one was prepared and I think that was why it was so scary was because it was so sudden and we had no plan. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to react or where to go or what to do from there.”

“There has been hundreds of buildings that have collapsed, thousands of people sleeping in tents. The Red Cross and National Guard have set up a bunch of temporary shelters for these people,” said Mitchell.

On Tuesday, the couple decided to buy a one-way plane ticket back to Utah to stay with Elise’s family in Kaysville.

“We needed to go somewhere logical where we can be calm and come up with a real plan. That way we’re not down there frantically trying to find a home or a place to live,” she said.

“You never think it’s going to happen to you and nothing really prepares you for it. We’re just trying to stay hopeful that the aftershocks will die down and our building will be ok,” said Mitchell. “I think more than anything, we just feel horrible for the thousands of people unfortunately who don’t have somewhere else to go.”

While they continue to monitor conditions in Puerto Rico, the Streiffs said they hope the U.S. government will send more aid and resources to help impacted communities get back on their feet.

“To be honest, we don’t feel like the media here on the mainland has done it quite enough justice. In the first couple of days, there was a lot of publicity. But since then, someone who doesn’t have a tie to Puerto Rico might think everything’s back to normal. But it’s not,” said Mitchell.

“It’s not over. They’re OK because they’re a strong community and they’re inspiring. But they’re still dealing with it today. It didn’t end last week. They’re still having earthquakes every day, people are still homeless. There’s thousands of people sleeping in tents just out of fear,” said Elise.

According to CNN, Mayor Maria Melendez estimated the damage to be above $200 million, in addition to the losses sustained by businesses that were forced to close down. Officials fear that additional quakes could cause buildings that have already sustained structural damage to collapse, trapping residents.

Deciding what to do next with damaged buildings is still an open question for Puerto Rico. Repairs will be costly and demolishing houses and buildings declared uninhabitable will also cost millions of dollars.

After days of waiting, the island got some good news about funding to begin the recovery process. President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon approved a declaration of a major disaster in Puerto Rico. The declaration provides federal funding for six municipalities on the southern coast.

There are currently 30 shelters on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, holding 8,023 people who were affected by the earthquakes.

Shelters in the cities of Yauco, Peñuelas, Guánica, Guayanilla, and Ponce provide food, showers, air-conditioned rest areas, psychological counseling, and medical services.

Some of those displaced are residents who are too afraid to return home for fear a wall or the roof will collapse.

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