Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tsunami Alert: Gringa en trauma

I stirred my oatmeal over the gas flame, contemplating how late I'd arrive to my orientation for foreign students in the university's Casa Central 10 short blocks up the street. That's when the rumbling started. Since moving to a 12th floor  apartment two days earlier I'd been bracing myself for replicas, aftershocks from the massive 8.8 earthquake that struck Chile two weeks earlier.

The overhead lamps swung back and forth, the glasses rattled in the cabinets, the floor trembled and the giant glass windows facing the ocean shook. I had the sensation of swaying in the high rise apartment tower. My heart raced as I switched off the gas and ran to the door where I'd left my keys in the lock so I could quickly place myself beneath the door frame. About a minute passed before the shaking stopped.

I wondered if I should run downstairs. I didn't know if I'd just experienced a significant earthquake or just a moderate temblor (tremor) heightened by my location on the 12th floor. I glanced in the hallway in search of neighbors to consult, but it seems I'm the only occupant in my hall. So I took the most illogical course of action: I gobbled up my breakfast, brushed my teeth, touched up my mascara and even scrubbed my retainers before rushing out the door. But before I could make an exit I heard the low murmur of the lamps swaying and the dishes vibrating. This time the trembling seemed even longer. I heard the whole building moving.

In a twisted way there's something enthralling about earthquakes -- the earth suddenly feels so alive. There's a sentiment of connection. After riding dozens of roller coasters and thrill rides in my adolescence it feels almost gentle. But the destruction the vibrations wreak on human civilization reminds us of the fragility of our existence.

Scared and alone, I ran down the dozen flights of stairs to the lobby. I tried to get the concierge's attention but he was on the phone with a burdened expression on his face and ignored me. People fled out the door before I could say anything. I asked a hysterical girl what was going on. "Viene una tsunami!" she shrieked between sobs.

Her mother and older sister ran in, frantic and crying. They all sprinted out the door, and I followed. Before they jumped in a taxi I asked if I could get in too. We piled in the car, with their big, smelly basset hound howling and trying to scramble out the window. I yanked out an infant car seat to make room and kept it on my lap. In the streets people ran toward the hills -- janitors, office workers, vendors and children. Some were sobbing and screaming as the sirens blared and horns honked. Our car barely moved in the traffic-choked streets. The women in the car cried out how they didn't want to die, how we would all lose everything in our apartment overlooking the sea. They screamed "Tsunami!" out the window as we passed fist-fighting thugs and shouting police officers. I couldn't understand the car radio in the chaos.

My heart pounded as I tried to calm the women, although I had no idea what was going on. I fought back tears as I tried to call the owners of my apartment and my host family in Santiago, but the phone lines had collapsed. Just like us, the people running in the streets kept looking back toward the ocean to see if the wave was coming. I stared back at my apartment building, thinking about my Mac and Nikon and all the belongings I'd stuffed into my suitcases with so much thought and care four weeks earlier. I accepted that they were all gone, that I'd have to find a new home. If the apartment didn't collapse it would be inhabitable. I wondered if I would have to leave Chile. I was living the most terrifying experience of my live thus far.

The car was making no progress, and I asked if we should get out and run instead. Thankfully the driver ignored me. Instead he went against traffic to a more distant hill where we quickly sped up and up through dingier and dingier neighborhoods until we felt that the maremoto wouldn't sweep us away. After we parked I realized that we hadn't been in a taxi, but a private car with a generous and remarkably calm business man who'd fled his office in Valparaiso. On the hillside we talked to the neighbors, a group of women who worked in waste management. They invited us into their warehouse to watch the news.

The earthquakes (up to 6.9 on the Richter scale) jolted Chile as the new president Sebastian Piñera was sworn in at an inaugural ceremony in the National Congress in Valparaiso blocks away from my apartment, with an audience of international diplomats and journalists. Piñera is the first elected right-wing leader 50 years after a repressive military dictatorship ruled the country, killing and torturing thousands citizens. (I'm not taking a political stance at this point in light of my ignorance of Chilean politics. I'll only acknowledge the new president's intelligence as he has a doctorate in economics from Harvard and is a millionaire entrepreneur.)

The tsunami alert remained in effect, so the women in the warehouse served us lunch. My apartment neighbors told me they weren't returning to the building that night, and I shouldn't either. When the tsunami advisory ended we drove back into the city, and they insisted I pack a bag and go with them to stay with a friend who lived on a hill. The chaotic center had converted into a ghost town, with all the businesses closed for the day. Although I didn't consider them the ideal emergency company considering their exemplified tendencies toward hysteria, they convinced me I would sleep through another tsunami alert if I stayed the night alone.

So that's how I ended up spending an uncomfortable night in a humble house in a neighborhood of wild dogs and feral cats. The next morning I made it back down to the city in time to sign up for classes in the university.

Still, every so often I tense up and look for swaying lamps. I don't know when the tremors are real or when it's my imagination. Scientists say the aftershocks from Chile's big quake will last up to a year, which is beyond the date of my departure flight. However, I now know that a tsunami is highly improbable in Valparaiso, and I think I'm safe in my building as it survived the big quake and therefore should hold up in the weaker replicas.

Basically, I'm in for a seismic year.

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