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One Week After Puerto Rico Earthquake, Thousands Are Still Sleeping Outside

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thousands of people in Puerto Rico are sleeping outdoors nearly a week after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the island. The fear of aftershocks as people in tents or under tarps. NPR's Adrian Florido reports from Puerto Rico's southern coast.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Before last Tuesday's earthquake, Benjamin Velez Rodriguez lived in a public housing complex at the edge of the town of Guanica. But the quake so damaged the complex that its residents, hundreds of them, were told to evacuate.

BENJAMIN VELEZ RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Velez and the nine members of his family came to the side of the main highway running through town and strung a blue tarp from a framboyan, a beautiful flowering tree with a wide canopy.

VELEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We have four babies," Velez said - his grandchildren - and this tree gives them shade all day. Local and federal officials estimate that since Tuesday's quake, more than 6,000 people have done just what the Velez family did; left their homes to sleep on sidewalks, in encampments that have sprung up on roadsides and hillsides or in open-air shelters set up by the mayors of several neighboring towns. Velez looked around at all the families camping out nearby and said their numbers have grown. The daily, small earthquakes are making people afraid their houses could be the next to collapse.

VELEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "More than 40 houses have already collapsed in Guanica alone," Velez said. It keeps getting worse. The shaking has been so persistent that Puerto Rico's governor, Wanda Vazquez, has encouraged people to leave them.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLES CLICKING)

FLORIDO: On Sunday, just a short walk from where the Velez family was camped out, army soldiers were setting up a large tent city that'll house displaced people, one of several being erected in the region. Needless to say, this is all taking a serious toll on people's mental health. Iris Tirado's apartment was destroyed. She made her way to a field surrounded by a running track. She tried sleeping on a cot someone gave her, but she couldn't.

IRIS TIRADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I'm sleeping in my car with her," she said, pointing to her dog.

TIRADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "And day after day, just thinking, what's going to happen to us? How are we going to resolve this situation? We just don't know." Given Puerto Rico's dire economic situation, the answer may depend on whether President Donald Trump approves the major disaster declaration requested by the island's governor a few days ago. It would free up federal money to put people in hotels and to eventually rebuild their homes. But that's a scenario many people I spoke with said they are not holding their breath for, especially after so many were denied help from FEMA after Hurricane Maria two years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Instead, amid all the uncertainty, people from other parts of the island have been mobilizing, cooking huge pots of food, collecting toothbrushes and diapers and deodorant and driving down to personally deliver them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: As I was speaking with Benjamin Velez under the shade of the framboyan tree, we were interrupted constantly by people - everyday people - handing him cases of water, plates of chicken and rice. A big truck came by to hand out toys for the kids. Tears welled up in Velez's eyes.

VELEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "They're sharing with us what they have," he said. "Not their leftovers, not the things they don't need but the things they have."

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Guanica, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.