Two firemen survey a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Guanica, one of the towns which appeared to suffer the worst damage on Puerto Rico's southwest coast. — AFP/VNA Photo
GUAYANILLA — Puerto Rico's governor declared a state of emergency on Tuesday after a powerful 6.4 magnitude earthquake killed at least one person in the south of the island and caused widespread damage.
Governor Wanda Vazquez said the declaration would allow for the activation of National Guard troops in the US territory still recovering from a devastating 2017 hurricane.
The US Geological Survey said the quake struck at 4:24am (0824 GMT) with the epicenter off the coast of the southern city of Ponce, and was followed by more than a dozen aftershocks.
Tuesday's quake was the most powerful in a series of tremors that have shaken the island since December 28.
Scientists initially sent out an alert about a potential tsunami but it was later cancelled.
The island's electricity authority said the quake had forced an automatic shutdown of the power grid, already severely damaged by Hurricane Maria more than two years ago.
The worst damage appeared to be in towns on the southwest coast, including Ponce, Guayanilla and Guanica.
El Nuevo Dia newspaper said a 73-year-old man died after a wall fell in his home in Ponce. Eight others there were reported injured.
Two power plants in Guayanilla sustained major damage, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said. The city could be without power for two weeks, its mayor Nelson Torres Yordan said.
Celebrity chef Jose Andres announced that a charity he runs, World Central Kitchen, had started serving meals and distributing solar-powered lamps in quake-hit areas.
Vazquez announced that US$130 million in emergency aid funding will be disbursed.
On social media, people wrote of being shaken awake by the force of the quake.
One woman on Twitter said she had been "wrenched from sleep".
"Everybody is awake & scared all over," she posted.
In Guayanilla, the Inmaculada Concepcion church, built in 1841, was heavily damaged.
Volunteers salvaged statues and other valuable items from the ruins as a priest consoled distraught parishioners.
A 5.8 magnitude quake on Monday toppled some structures, caused power outages and small landslides, but did not result in any casualties.
It also destroyed a popular tourist landmark, Punta Ventana, a natural stone arch that crumbled on the island's southern coast.
Vazquez, the governor, said government employees were being given the day off on Tuesday to take care of their families.
"We want everyone to be safe," she said.
She said ports were undamaged and there are several weeks' supply of gasoline, diesel and natural gas stored so people need not worry about shortages.
The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed and Pete Gaynor, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had been in touch with the governor.
Trump's administration came under severe criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria.
The Category 4 storm destroyed the island's already shaky power grid, overwhelmed public services, left many residents homeless and claimed several thousand lives, according to government estimates. — AFP