Photograph by Anthony Asael, Getty Images
Photograph by Anthony Asael, Getty Images

What caused Haiti's 2010 quake and Puerto Rico's more recent temblors?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

When I think of the Caribbean, particularly in wintry months in Washington, D.C., I think of swaying palms, ocean breezes, and sun-blessed sands. My main fear has been hurricanes. However, the new year ushered in another fear, with terrifying memories of a deadly decade-old quake and fresh nightmares of new temblors in the neighborhood.

In broad strokes, both the devastating January 2010 quake in Haiti and the series of seismic shakes in southern Puerto Rico have been caused by the same thing: pressure from the squeezing North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. It’s something that has plagued the region and affected its history for centuries.

The most powerful of the recent scores of quakes to hit Puerto Rico, a 6.4 magnitude on January 7, was the strongest to hit the U.S. commonwealth since a 7.3 quake in October 1918. The 1918 quake killed 116 people. This time around, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have been left without power, a startling reminder of Puerto Rico’s enduring struggles after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.

This recent damage in Puerto Rico is not in the same universe with Haiti’s January 12, 2010 quake, the strongest in that nation since 1770. The 2010 quake killed an estimated 316,000 people, injured 1.5 million, and left another 1.5 million homeless. Disturbingly, reports Jacqueline Charles for Nat Geo, Port-au-Prince’s quake-wrecked presidential palace and cathedral (pictured above) remain unrepaired a decade later—and a long-promised public hospital is an empty shell, a symbol of billions in Haitian aid money that was misspent and/or stolen.

Seismologically, one thing remains certain, Elizabeth Vanacore of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network tells Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas: “There will be more earthquakes.”

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Today in a minute

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Remembering a giant

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Read: Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?

The big takeaway

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at Thanks for reading!