Saturday, February 27, 2010

El terromoto de una vida

Last night I waited in the lobby of a restaurant bar in the Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago, where I was spending time with my language school classmates, including my two closest friends who were set to leave the country the next day. I wanted someone to share a taxi with me back to our Providencia neighborhood. Meanwhile my Brazilian friend Betaña started to tear up thinking about how we might never see each other again. I tried to comfort her, feeling shaky myself, from exhaustion and the recalcitrant illness I'd tried to kick all week, annoyed that I'd wasted my $2,000 pesos on that Red Bull I'd ordered earlier.

That's when the floor trembled. I noticed the vibrations that rattled the building right away, but my professors and host family had told me that minor temblores are common in Chile, one of the most active earthquake zones on the planet. However the trembling only intensified. With the passing seconds we could hear the building shaking, bottles breaking. The lights went out. I grabbed my Brazilian friend Evan in a death grip hug, and we didn't let go. They say the quake lasted less than two minutes, but that's a long time when the earth beneath your feet is bouncing, when your mind is racing to recall earthquake safety protocols, whether you should crouch under one of the empty tables or run outside in the street so not to be crushed alive in the building, when suddenly news reports about thousands dead, missing or trapped in Haiti seem all too real.

It was 3:30 a.m., and you might ask why I would be out and about at such an ungodly hour, but you must understand that for Chileans this a perfectly reasonable time to be out on a Friday night, as the proper dinner party at my host family's house yesterday didn't start until nearly 11 p.m. I can assure you that the neighborhood was packed with (mostly) respectable citizens.

Afterward I had the urge to cry but couldn't. Without any taxis or buses, we walked home with the full moon serving as our only light most of the way. We didn't encounter any panic or chaos, but it was a long two hours before I made it back to my house. We maneuvered the sidewalks littered with broken glass, fallen telephone poles, broken bricks and caved in walls. Even crossing the street without stoplights was tricky. It was chilly, I was desperate for a bathroom and a drink of water, and my bronze flats weren't made for distance walking. The ambulances wailing and car radios blaring news only added to the state of emergency atmosphere. Evan offered to walk me to my house, which is 20 minutes away from where everyone else lives.

(As I'm writing this I felt another mild temblor, or replica as they call them here.)

It was so dark that we couldn't read the street signs and ended up lost. Occasionally someone would pass us in the shadows, and my heart would race as I imagined a looter taking advantage of the situation. I finally arrived at my candle-lit doorstep to find my host family and seven children and two dogs huddled in the living room. "Te hemos llamado mil veces!" they explained. Although most cell phone communication had been interrupted, they'd entered my room and stepped over all my belongings and the broken glass strewn in the floor to find my mobile phone box with my number on it in a drawer.

We didn't go to bed until dawn. The Chileans I was with were in a deeper state of shock than I was, with reason. They had babies and small children and other family members to worry about. Some of them lived on the 13th floor of an apartment building, and they'd felt the tower sway, breaking their windows and knocking over their flat screen TV and lamps. They could only huddle under a doorway while they clutched their three daughters.

Our lights didn't come back on until the next morning. The electricity grid in Chile is programmed to automatically turn off in the event of earthquakes above 6.0 on the Richter Scale, and this one was an 8.8, 100 times greater than the 7.0 quake that devastated Haiti in January. In fact it was the fifth largest earthquake since 1900. But so far in Chile about 400 deaths have been reported in comparison to the 250,000 in Haiti. This has a lot to do with the advanced engineering and strict earthquake-proof construction codes here along with the organized relief infrastructure. Bordered by the Andes cordillera, Chile is one of the most seismically active places on earth (funny how I don't remember ever reading that before now). The strongest earthquake ever measured occurred here in 1960, a 9.5, and another disastrous quake hit in 1985. In fact three of the 10 most powerful earthquakes in recorded history have occurred in Chile, today's disaster included. Chile is a developed nation with its own disaster fund rather than an impoverished, overpopulated state, so the two recent earthquake situations aren't comparable.

Although the TV news shows images of fallen bridges and a church with a collapsed steeple here in Santiago, everyone I know is safe. Our house only suffered one crack in the wall. South of us in Chile's second largest city Concepcion, which is closer to the earthquake's 22-mile deep epicenter, the damage and suffering are on another level, especially in the poorest areas. This evening we sat around the table in the patio to say prayers for those in the south who have lost so much and to give thanks that we are all safe.


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