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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

¡¡Earthquake!!

Earthquake!!!!

I first heard a siren scraming though the business district of Santiago - ¨Sanhattan¨ as some call it, with the echo of impending disaster. This woke me up, barely taking note of the late hour, then the trembling started. Living in Chile makes one accustomed to the earth moving under your feet from time to time. We have had some bad tremors but nothing that continued as long as this one did. Curious that this tremor was actually a quake, and a long awaited one at that. Here is the story of how it happened for us at the office of VM Elite Viajes, 8º floor home office in downtown Santiago on February 27th, 2010.

As dawn broke the evidence of disaster started piling up. The pedestrian walkways over the highways were twisted and mangled, the buckled highways had thrown cars into chasms and several church steeples suffered the brunt of the trembling, fell down completely or tipped to the side, the skewed cross indicating the damage. Despite this damage, the twisted highways, along with a couple of tilted buildings was the worst of it here in the Capital. Initially we thought that all of Chile had been narowly missed, as there were few reported deaths, and no sign of a tsunami.

We had fallen asleep watching the end of a movie when I heard the siren coming towards our building. With the screaming siren came the shaking that lasted for two minutes. Attempting to run the length of the swaying hallway with the closet doors swinging and banging we reached the entrance to the main hall staircase, only to find we were want of clothing. We just stood there listening to everything crash around us as the first tremor ended and we ran to put on warm clothes and boots, grabbed flashlights and all of our keys, a blanket and we were out the door to thefloor dark stairwell, and out into the darkest night. Near our apartment chimneys were collapsed, the bell tower fell off the cathedral and everyone was out in the street huddled around a radio. The nightclubs had been in full swing, two guys crashed on a scooter right in front of us, but fled (drunk) as the police approached.

After a couple of hours we went back upstairs and tried to sleep. The 6.9 aftershock that came a few hours later was the worst... you get used to the lighter tremors after a while (we have had more than 50) but the repeated, non-stop shaking with the lights on just after 6am had us thinking that we were about to do it all over again. The lights came on at just after 6:00am and the phones were working at 9:30. There was no sleep for us as the phone calls started coming in even though we were told to keep the lines clear for emergency purposes. We were glued to the local news - CNN has its own network in Chile, so the news you folks were getting in North America was mostly accurate - I just wish they had reported more of Australasia as I was concerned for friends in Aus and NZ. In the end it turns out that the tsunami wave didn´t cross the Pacific at all, it turned back on the southern tip of Chile, wiping out beach towns for several hundered kilometres.

Everything is okay in our apartment, which is our home office. The dividing walls are cracked with plaster missing, some wine glasses were broken and everything fell off the walls. Luckily no wine bottles were broken in our mini cellar of a wine collection! We have had quite the time cleaning up but we feel very lucky that, despite the fright, we have come out perfectly unscathed. We were lucky to have had power and light just a few hours after the event. Other ¨barrios¨ were not so lucky and had to wait weeks before their power was restored.

Most of the towns in the south were, and still are, in terrible condition. Terrible condition means that most of the houses were without a roof for the main supporting walls having fallen down. Some tsunami affected towns were washed away, leaving cars, boats and the remains of people´s lives high up in the hills, as much as 1 to 2 kms inland. What makes all of this worse, is that the affected folks of the poor neighbourhoods were looting the supermarkets for plasma screens and dishwashers...surely you need one of those after your house has just fallen down. By all means, they took with them supplies they needed amongst the rest of whatever they could grab. The looting didn´t stop in the stores after a few days of mayhem. Without the army having been called in to reduce the number of crowds who were looting supermarkets and shops, and then burning a department store, once empty the chaos was turned to target private houses. I remember hearing that people were guarding their property behind the gate with sticks or any weapon they could get, from the mob that came to rob them. They felt helpless after having survived first the quake, then a tsunami...the last thing they needed was to have their own countrymen attack and injure them. I must remind you that these events happened only for a few days, and in the specific zone of Concepcion. This is where the folks were desperate and some groups had indeed been allowed by the Carabineros (police) to take supplies that were badly needed.

Many people were stuck outside of Santiago at the coast. Many holiday makers take off to the towns at the beach, however most had no power or water for two days. What made matters worse is that they couldn´t go home as the emergency workers re-opened the twisted, collapsed highways. My close friends and canadian compariots live in the Mountains at the base of the Andes. They were shaken up but without power, water or internet for at least one week. Arturo Merino Benitez, the country’s international, newly reconstructed Airport had the ceiling fall in and on to fleeing passengers. They say it was to open 72 hours after the earthquake, but having flown recently two months after the fact, there are still tents and makeshift waiting areas set up for travelers.

Everyone dealt with the difficulties differently. Travelers had to either bus over the Andes to or from Mendoza, Argentina, or stay in hotels that were already busy due to the Festival de Viña del Mar Beach concert that was already in full swing at the time of the quake. Our office is straight across from the Intercontinental Hotel. We could see the same faces in the windows for days, families and teams alike, longing to go home.

For our part we felt very lucky. The quake was said to have been long overdue due to geothermal buildup on the plate´s fault line near Concepcion. They researchers say that this event will quiet the rumbling for some time, up to 200 years from now. So many of my Canadian friends and family want to know if this is scary enough to make me move home. In response I will reply that no, I don´t want to leave here yet. I feel that this experience was, in a way, heartening as it brought together a country of tough hearty folks. Although scary, I was well looked after by my lovely man and business partner Tomás. As we move on from this frightening time, Chile is still collecting clothing, raising money and building homes. I am sad for the families of the 1500 persons whom lost their lives, but encouraged to find a newly reconstructed and improved Chile in the outcome of this disaster.