What’s it Like to be in a Magnitude 6.5 Earthquake? Remembering Puerto Plata 2003

2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the powerful magnitude 6.5 earthquake that hit the tourist town of Puerto Plata. I figured after two decades, now, was a good time to share my experience of what it was like to be a tourist in the epicenter of it all.

The island of Hispaniola is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Our first-ever destination trip as a family was at the Occidental Allegro Playa Dorada in Puerto Plata.  Our week-long, all-inclusive in the sunny Caribbean was booked from September 21, 2003 to September 28, 2003. I for one was excited for a week of relaxing, switching off from work, and enjoying the sun, sand, and surf as well as a few cervezas.  

It was a long day; we were up at 3:00 A.M. to get to Pearson International Airport in Toronto for our 6:00 A.M. flight.  After arriving in the DR, spending the day exploring the grounds, having dinner, and enjoying the nightly entertainment, the kids and I decided it was time to call it a day. Hubby had gone up to bed earlier. We were officially zonked after an exciting first day of fun in the sun.

The kids were fast asleep. I laid in bed reading for a bit. I removed my eyeglasses and set them on the floor next to the bed because there was no night table to place them on (I moved it there after the quake). I shut my eyes looking forward to sleep. I was exhausted.

Our room

I hadn’t had my eyes closed for much more than ten-fifteen minutes when I heard a rumble. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, it sounded primal. All I can do to describe it is liken it to the loud thunderous roar of an airplane flying overhead …. like immediately overhead.  I thought maybe a plane was ditching into the Atlantic Ocean.  I had no clue what the heck I was hearing because my brain couldn’t place it, there was no association to what I was hearing. I know now what I heard was a foreshock.  Shallow quakes sometimes produce rumbling sounds that can be heard by those who are very close to them. The bigger the earthquake, the longer it takes the fault to rupture and this shift in the ground produces two kinds of sound waves.  The rumbling before an earthquake is the P wave, basically a sound wave through the ground. The main shock is usually the S wave.

I went to bed around 11:15 PM, after all, it was a long 1st day, and we were up at 3:00 A.M. At around 12:45 A.M. I heard what sounded like a huge jetliner coming toward the hotel.  It was a loud unforgettable roar/rumble.  As I was getting up to look out the patio doors (to my left), the hotel began shaking. Items in the bathroom, and on the counter were falling to the ground, the toilet slammed shut, and the bed was rolling away from the wall.  While the earth was shaking, the power went out … it was pitch black”.

Scrapbook entry of September 2003

For reference, I was in the bed closest to the patio doors. I was sleeping on the right hand side of the bed, if you’re looking at it. Trying to make sense of this roar, I peered out the patio doors searching for some cause … I saw nothing from our ocean-view room, nothing other than darkness. Unlike other natural phenomena, there’s no standard indication that an earthquake is about to strike.

Without warning, the floor beneath me started to shake violently, the exact time as I know it to be today, is as I suspected when I scrapbooked all those years ago was … 00:45:37. The initial surge threw me backward and I tumbled to the edge of the bed as I tried to steady myself on my feet.  While a smaller quake will last a couple of seconds, a stronger one could last for thirty seconds or more. This one went on for a full forty seconds! It felt as if it would never stop. Hubby and the kiddos were jolted awake with all of the ruckus of items falling, things slamming, night lights toppling, and their headboards being violently slammed against the wall. As I tried to get back upright, the ground heaved and hoed, possibly cracking. The quake was definitely destroying things built or standing on top of the earth’s crust. This felt powerful. As the earth shook, the power went it. It was black.

I couldn’t quite work out in my mind what the hell was happening, it dawned on me about 18 seconds in and I knew I had to get the kids to the relative safety of a doorway.  But by the time it clicked and I went to put my thoughts into action, the ferocious shaking, banging and clattering had stopped. All of the noise and movement was now replaced by an eerie silence. I ran to the hotel door and opened it … complete darkness. Other guests peeped their heads out of their rooms at the exact same time wondering what the actual hell we’d just been through.

To give you some perspective on how it felt, check out the YouTube video below. Surveillance cameras at a casino in a resort on the same strip as ours captured the sights and sounds of the Mw 6.5 quake as it rumbled through their hotel.  Guests ran for cover as the lights went out and debris rained down.

Security footage of hotel guests running for cover in the 6.5 Puerto Plata earthquake

The backup emergency lights powered on. Now being able to see what the hell was happening, I ran to the phone and pressed 0 to reach the front desk and in my broken Spanish, I asked “tierra tiembla?”.  I speak French and thankfully it’s similar enough to Spanish.  The literal translation to what I asked was “earth shakes?”.  The clerk understood and responded “sí señorita”.

The closer you are to the epicenter, the stronger these vibrations and movements are.  This felt like a heavyweight. I knew we had to be pretty close to the epicenter.

Shaken, both literally and figuratively, we scurried out of our jammies, locked up our valuables, grabbed a bottle of rum to help calm our nerves, and hurried toward the front lobby.  Some guests opted to stay in their rooms, my gut instinct was to get out. We didn’t know the extent of the damage to the hotel from the main shock and we had no idea how strong any subsequent aftershocks would be. Just because the original earthquake is over, it doesn’t mean that the danger is done. I watch a lot of documentaries on natural disasters, this is one instance where my National Geographic nerdiness came in handy (laugh).

We saw a group guests gathered over by one the resort’s two pools. Upon assessing the situation, I felt it would be safer for us to be away from the hotel complex altogether and in an open space – away from any falling debris, less any aftershocks. Each of us grabbed a plastic chair and made our way to the lobby exit toward the front of the hotel grounds.

It was a strange atmosphere; everyone crowded there at 1:00ish in the morning, nervously chatting. 

Gathered in front of the hotel entrance (actual film photo)

The first aftershock hit a mere 21 minutes later at 1:06 A.M. It was considered to be ‘light’ and measured M4.1.  

Everyone was swapping experiences, meanwhile, I was stressing because we weren’t being given much information other than that most of the Northern Coast of the island was without power.  I suspect at those early stages the staff didn’t know very much, they themselves were trying to sort it out, plus they were probably concerned for the wellbeing of their own families. No one knew where the epicenter was located and yes, I asked.  To me, this was a vital fact.  I’m thinking “I need to know where the epicenter is.  Is it in the mountain range behind me or in the ocean in front of me?”

I don’t think anyone other than me was worried about the possibility of a tsunami. Didn’t they know that tsunamis can hit coastal areas within minutes to hours after a severe earthquake? If Nat Geo had taught me anything it was that one of the signs of a tsunami could be a strong earthquake lasting 20 seconds or more near the coast. And, if that was the case, I knew that the best way to protect myself and my family in case of a tsunami was to evacuate and move to higher ground and stay away from the coast. Thus my decision to move in from the oceanfront view of our hotel room.  But I still had no idea where the epicenter was.

Larger group of us in front of hotel entrance (actual film photo)

The second aftershock was stronger and hit just 24 minutes after the first, at 1:30 A.M., measuring M5.1.  A magnitude 5.0 to 5.9 is considered a moderate quake.

It was then that I went to the lobby and made a collect call back home to Canada and spoke with my best friend, Miranda.  I explained what had transpired and asked her to please look online for any information she could locate and that I’d call her back. Truthfully, I thought she’d probably get information faster back home via the internet than we would there in the DR.

The largest aftershock at M5.6 occurred about an hour after the mainshock. We were still sitting in our green plastic chairs borrowed from the pool deck waiting “it” out.  As it struck, we swayed back and forth in the flimsy chairs – trying to brace ourselves. We watched as clay tiles fell from the hotel roof, the awning crumpled behind us, and frightened tourists and hotel staff “oooouuuu’ed” and “aaawwwedddd” as the ground rolled beneath us once again.  

The kids were troopers, I can only imagine what it must have felt like in their little bodies, experiencing such chaos. They handled it quite differently.  Poor Cassandra, all the rocking, rolling and earth rumbling made her feel nervous and sick to her stomach, understandably so.  While Emma was super excited that in the midst of all the chaos, she’d found a 5 pesos coin, which she displays proudly in the photo below.  Hubby was chatting with some folks we’d met the day prior and enjoying a rum and coke. Me, well, I was questioning everything that was happening. It’s a really, really weird feeling when the earth rumbles below you; all I could imagine was a crack opening up beneath us and being swallowed whole.

Approx. forty-five minutes after the initial main quake

As the aftershocks continued throughout the night, we were told by resort staff that it was safer for us to spend the night outside because the hotel had to be cleared for re-entry by the military to ensure it was safe for us tourists.  Hubby gathered up four chaise lounges and grabbed some blankets from the room and we slept under the stars. That wouldn’t have been half bad save for the thousands of mosquitoes and mosquito bites we endured. The poor kids were covered head to toe in bites, so was I.  Great, now I worried about Zika Virus and malaria too.

Around 7:30 A.M. after only sleeping 3 hours or so and being so so so tired, we left the chaise lounges and headed back to the comfort of our hotel room. As we did the earth trembled again, reminding us that she wasn’t done. We tried to get a couple more hours of rest before starting our second day.

The damage to the hotel structure itself appeared to be minimal … large cracks in the walls, broken clay roof tiles, and fractured floor tiles but otherwise it looked like it came out of the ordeal relatively unscathed.  They obviously build oceanfront resorts sturdy since they are susceptible to hurricanes.  

Later that morning, I asked our Air Transat Representative, Freddie, to spill the tea.  He explained that the quake had caused an extensive amount of damage in town to homes, structures, and roads. Turns out the epicenter was just 2 km southeast of Puerto Plata (pop: 146,000) and 20 km north of the town of Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican.

I asked Freddie how his home had faired, not good, it had all but nearly collapsed, and his belongings were ruined.  It was much the same for most of the staff at the hotel that we had befriended. To think that they had endured all of that just a few hours earlier and they still came to work in the morning. So heartbreaking.

According to the newspaper articles from the paper that Freddie picked up for me, the earthquake was reported as a strong magnitude 6.5 and was felt over most of the country.  It caused significant damage in the cities of Puerto Plata and Santiago and was felt as far as Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and even western Puerto Rico some 354 km east. This quake was one of a series of westward-propagating earthquakes along the boundary between the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. So that confirms it, we were in fact in the epicenter.

Earthquake Map 9/22/2003 – epicenter located at longitude -70.69, latitude 19.76, depth 10 km

The average effect of a 6.0 to 6.9 magnitude earthquake can include damage to a moderate number of well-built structures in populated areas. However, poorly designed structures such as those in the DR received moderate to severe damage. A quake between 6.0 to 6.9 is usually felt in wider areas; up to hundreds of kilometres from the epicenter, which it was, and includes strong to violent shaking in the epicentral area, which it did.

We witnessed some of the devastation when we left the resort to go horseback riding on the mountain. I was aghast. These poor people, I can only imagine (please note that not all of these are my photos).

The USGS (United States Geological Survey) calculated it having an intensity of M6.5, the Global CMT assessed it as an M6.4 and this scientific paper assessed it as high as an Mw 6.7.  From a non-scientific perspective, I don’t give a hootenanny what they rated it as, it was a terrifying experience.  For the rest of that week and for the rest of the month of September, 208 aftershocks were registered.

In between aftershocks, we enjoyed the rest of our vacation.  The sun was shining, the weather was gorgeous, and the water was warm, the usually blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean were dark and murky from being churned.

The kids had a blast horseback riding, participating in Kids Club activities and performing mini-disco on stage as part of the evening entertainment.  They swam in salt water for the first time and made friends from different countries.   

Our week being up, it was time to head back to Canada. The airport sustained a fair amount of damage as well as you can see in the photos below. For the first few days post-quake, the airport was closed to incoming and outgoing flights.

I’ve been asked “what does it feel like to be in an earthquake?”.  If you’ve never experienced one, it’s hard to imagine the ground moving, and you moving along with it.  It’s hard to truly describe what an earthquake feels like, it’s a very unusual sensation.  

Looking back, now that we are safe, obviously, it’s a cool experience that we get to share.  I can also now take in, the extent of the damage that this quake caused.

Living through an earthquake can be one of the most terrifying experiences that a person can go through. In no other situation are you at the true mercy of mother nature which can strike with lethal force at any time or any place.


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