Chile’s Earthquake–the 8.8 experience

As the world is now fully aware, Chile suffered a massive 8.8-point earthquake at 3:34 AM on Saturday, February 27, 2010. Some 80% of the country felt the impact that left some sectors nearly decimated and others barely touched. Chile is no stranger to earthquakes. It holds the record for the world’s worst—9.5 points in Valdivia in May 1960. Chile—and Chileans—are prepared to meet nature’s wrath square on, and thanks to appropriate technology and a culture of preparedness (turn off the gas, turn on the water, open the door, stand in the doorway, get outside, get to high ground), the country has been able to withstand a fury that would have brought most other countries to their figurative knees.

Earthquake: A Personal View

Here’s a bit of my story as experienced in Concón, on Chile’s Pacific coast, just north of Viña del Mar (see the map below). It’s far less dramatic than many, but it’s also good for people to know that the entire country has not collapsed.

This was not the first time I’ve felt the world shake in the middle of the night. Nor was it the first time that my husband and I showed our different natures in the face of an emergency.

At 3:34 this morning, February 27, 2010, as the Earth let out a roar that began 35 km (22 mi) beneath the surface and began its strongest round of shake, rattle, and roll in 50 years, my very Chilean husband, having dealt with earthquakes and associated lore all his life, sprang from sound asleep to full alert in seconds and flew from the bed to the doorway, which is generally held to be the safest place to be in a quake.

Me? I’m the gringa who grew up relatively earthquake-free, and as such have no experienced-based fear of them. My response is to stay put until the shaking stops. So as he was shouting for me to run to the door, I was clutching the mattress, which jumped as if possessed, while calling for him to come back… Sometimes this works… but not this night.

See, the thing about earthquakes is that you never know when they will strike, how intense they will become, or how long they will last. And this one kept getting stronger and showed no signs of letting up. This was the big one… I joined him at the door.

Thankfully the moon was close to full and shed just enough light that we could see where we were going—it also allowed us to catch the TV just as it took a flying leap from its stand.

As I think back to those 3 eternal minutes, I try to make sense of detached and disorderly details. We were half-crouching, half-staggering like drunks on an all-night bender as we tried to keep our balance in the apartment doorway as the building randomly lurched back and forth and from side to side as if some giant hand had gone wild with a demonic joystick. In my mind’s eye I see our mouths moving, but have no idea what we said to each other. I don’t remember the sound. It must have been deafening—the earth roars when it moves and everything in the house rattles. Things fall from shelves, glasses fly from their cupboards and shatter across the room, doors open and slam shut, windows protest their frames, furniture throws tantrums and hurls itself to the floor… it must have been loud, but I don’t remember. My memory of the moment is as surreal as a psychedelic movie.

When things settled down, we pulled on some jeans and headed for the door. We needed to get out and down to the (dubiously) solid ground 8 floors below. I grabbed my camera bag and was almost out the door when I realized I should probably bring my purse as well! (thinking like a photographer in a crisis it seems).

My step-son called from the next town over (Reñaca) to let us know that he and his wife were okay. Then the phone went dead. I sent out a Tweet time-stamped 3:34: “TERREMOTO FUERTE in Concón.” I saw others had done the same and knew that Santiago, Casablanca, and Colchagua were also involved. I also knew that my friend Matt was missing England😉

I tweeted again a couple minutes later asking about epicenter and injuries… that was the last communication we had for hours.

All of the neighbors were downstairs. All dazed. All glued to useless cell phones, trying desperately to contact loved ones. All jumping with every one of the many (though small) aftershocks. But not a tear. Not even the babies were crying.

It was cold, so we got in the car and turned on the radio and eventually learned that the epicenter was between Concepción–we have family in Concepción–and Maule. I wondered about friends in the wine industry. All those barrels. All those tanks of wine. All those old bodegas… there was no way to know.

We knew that the ocean had pulled back and people in the south had run for the hills to avoid a tsunami. It pulls back during a quake and can return with a vengeance. (see the photo slide show link at the end of this piece). We wondered what the Pacific had in store for us, just down the cliff.

Concón post-terremoto, waterline

Beach view. The red line marks the normal waterline.

At 5:30 we were finally able to get through to my in-laws in Santiago. They were fine and already back in bed. At 6:00 we also decided to take our chances and return, exhausted, to our apartment. The damage wasn’t so bad. Some broken glasses, things on the floor. No structural damage. Nothing of importance. We were okay.

Back to bed, only to be jolted—hard—once again at 7:30. Little chance of more sleep.

Concón post-terremoto. La Boca del Río Aconcagua

High water at outlet of Aconcagua River. Left circle marks what remains of the water park that was in full operation 12 hours earlier. Right circle marks spot where rental horses are usually stabled.

No lights (the municipality controls that). No gas (the building manager turned it off). No water (the pump is electric). No communication (cell phones were out again). No way to reach my family in the US, so we headed back to Santiago. Besides, it just didn’t feel right to stay at the beach, pretending to have a good time, while incommunicado with the world and knowing that others were suffering around the country.

The roads were relatively clear and amazingly free of structural damage. The major highway (Rt 68) had reopened—all the tunnels and bridges had been checked and cleared for safety. I’m not wild about tunnels (ever) so we took the Cuesta Zapata—the road that goes up over the mountain instead of through it. Numerous rock slides had left boulders scattered about the winding narrow road, making it a bit of an adventure.

Cuesta Zapata, Casablanca, post-terremoto

Landslides along Cuesta Zapata (Casablanca) post earthquake

The new highway that normally allows us to skirt the downtown sector was closed due to damage, so we came straight through downtown. The streets were calm. The air was weird. We’re used to smog in Santiago, but this wasn’t it. There was an odd glow to it as the sun shone through the haze of dust that had been shaken and sent high into the atmosphere by the force of seismic fury.

We saw little damage along Alameda, Santiago’s main street. Some cracks here, some rubble there, but nothing very dramatic, until we reached the Divina Providencia Church. Divine Providence. How ironic the name. The entire cupola had been wrenched from its roost atop the church, as if to allow the altar to gape at the heavens.

Iglesia Divina Providencia post-terremoto

Iglesia Divina Providencia minus cupola, post earthquake

Home at last. Neighbors had already checked our place, and we knew there was no major damage… heavy furniture had walked itself several inches out from the wall, some wine glasses had worked their way from their perch, a bookshelf had tumbled, odds and ends were scattered about, and not a single bottle of wine was lost from my cellar.

Deep breath. Find the broom. Remember to give thanks.

——

For More Info:

Here’s a little piece I wrote for the Guardian yesterday : Chile’s earthquake: view from Santiago

And a link to a a selection of truly unbelievable Chilean Earthquake Pictures.

Even more pictures from the Chilean newspaper La Tercera: Chilean Earthquake Slide Show.

Also see Liz Caskey’s Post about her experience of the Earthquake in Chile.

For much more information on earthquake activity, see the excellent US Geological Survey’s Earthquake site.

25 responses to “Chile’s Earthquake–the 8.8 experience

  1. Hola! I live in Boston, Mass but was born in Santiago. My mom’s family is all there, and thankfully safe and sound. I’ve been reading your blog for a year or so, after my most recent trip to Chile (last January), to learn more about Chilean culture. I’m happy to hear you are ok! And I wouldn’t have wanted to go through those tunnels either.😉 Please keep us updated! Keep safe!

  2. Hi Angela- thanks for your comments. La cosa es fuerte aqu. I’m watching the news now and the situation in the south and Juan Fernandez (Robinson Crusoe) Island is beyond belief. I am so thankful that everyone I know is OK, but seeing what others are going through is truly heart-wrenching.

  3. Me alegra saber que tú y tu familia se encuentran bien. La etapa que se inicia ahora, de reconstrucción del país, será muy dura, pero creo que saldremos adelante.

  4. Hola Marmo-
    ¿y tu? ¿y los tuyos? Espero que tampoco hayan sufrido demasiado.
    Tal como dices, la reconstrucción va a ser duro y largo. Solo en Santiago y la zona central va a costar harto reparar todo y encontrar adecuadas casas para tanta gente, etc., pero viendo las imágenes que ya están llegando del sur, me llena de pena y ganas de llorar.

  5. Responding to Marmo, but in English for everyone else’s benefit. As he said, the hard part starts now… rebuilding is going to me a mammoth effort and will take a very, very long time. Just in Santiago and the central zone alone the damage done will take a lot of time and effort, but now, seeing the images of what has happened in the south, we realize just how enormous the force of nature can be. It just fills me with sadness.
    As relief efforts come to fore, I will be posting for those who want to help.

  6. Glad to know you’re ok. It’s going to be tough but if anyone can pull together as a community and remain valiant in the face of such adversity, it’s the Chilean people.

  7. It’s amazing to see how prepared people are (1) at the moment of crisis–turn of the gas, open the doors, get into the doorway, etc., and (2) starting the cleanup.
    The flip side of that however has been the horrifying scenes of looting in Concepción. It’s one thing to see a mother carting off a case of milk or sack of rice. It’s another thing altogether to see guys hauling off plasma TVs and washing machines. Shows that there are all kinds in all places.

  8. Hey Margaret, glad to know you are doing okay. Thanks for posting the pictures. Your personal experience made me tremble and I’m not even there. We are headed back on Saturday and don’t really know what to expect at L.’s apartment which is sort of close to where the highway collapsed in Santiago. His job still has no internet. How is the internet and phone service in Santiago today?

  9. Hi Sara-
    Hope the airport is back up and working by the time you get here. Have you seen the pictures? We can only be thankful that this happened at 3:30 in the morning, when it was empty (or relatively so) and not at 3:30 in the afternoon when it would have had much more catastrophic results.
    Internet and other services are sporadic around town… some have ’em, some don’t, but I think most have gas, water, & lights by now.

  10. I love reading your blog, and though I seldom comment on what I read, I want to draw attention to something you mention: the idea of standing in a doorway during earthquakes.

    This advice, which was conventional wisdom 30 years ago, is apparently no longer advocated. I understand that this is actually one of the worst places you can go.

    The Santiago Times published an article a few weeks ago discussing this very issue: http://bit.ly/caAkeF

    Also please don’t take my word for it; check what Google turns up: http://bit.ly/aNv4aq

    God bless you all during this very difficult time.

    Chad

  11. Hi Chad- thanks for writing, especially this time. You know, I did some research on earthquake protection about a year ago and did come across this information about doorways vs heavy furniture–and NEVER GAVE IT A THOUGHT during the actual earthquake. Even if I had, there was no way I would’ve have convinced my husband to change his lifelong habits at that particular moment!
    I think part of the thinking (along with the idea of the doorway being strongest) is that very often doors get jammed shut, so if the door is open (because you’re in it), you will be able to get out later.
    I will have to go back and do my homework, prepare an earthquake kit, and start doing some drills (we get enough temblor-alerts that we should be in good shape before the next big one!)
    Again- thanks…

  12. glad you and yours are well. I can’t even fathom the experience. I’m back in about two weeks. I guess everyone will have adjusted to the new normal in Santiago by then, but all of us surely are thinking of those hardest hit in the south.

    Thanks for posting!

  13. Hi- See what happens when you go away looking for adventure? You missed the Big One.
    Was by your place yesterday- looked fine from the outside… has anyone checked the inside for you yet? Hope all is well. Other parts of your neighborhood–not so much…
    Take care of yourself and bring back plenty of stories!

  14. Aunt Peg,
    Do you know if all of the horses got out of the stable ok? I just printed out your article and my class is going to read it tomorrow. I’m glad you didn’t get hurt!
    Love, Micheala

  15. Dear Michaela- yes, I think the horses are okay. I’m pretty sure that they take them to another place at night.
    We were pretty scared, but we were very lucky. I am going to post another article tonight with more pictures of things that happened in Santiago. I can send you some now.
    Love, Tía Peg.

  16. It’s good to know you and your family are ok. My heart goes out to all Chileans affected by the earthquake.

  17. Margaret,

    On second thought, I went back to that article and noticed that other noteworthy sources, including the Red Cross, refute the claims about the doorways. Guess I should check my sources better!

    Chad

  18. Hi Chad- Thanks for getting back on this. One of the things on my to-do list is to find the best source of information possible on how to prepare for an earthquake. I’d love to hear from an architect on the door frame theory! Is there a general thinking among builders and architects with respect to the strongest, safest part of a structure?

  19. Thank you for you riveting account of these devastating events. As a “gringa” from Australia with two daughters fathered by a Chilean originally from Santiago, we have taken a close interest in the impact of the earthquake.

    Colleen Du Bois

  20. Hi Colleen-
    Thanks for your comment–these are certainly trying times, though people are trying to get back to something resembling a normal life, although this will take far, far longer in Maule & Concepción… this is the Chilean way.

  21. Margaret, So good to read your blogg and know that ConCon was not badly hit. We spent a week there at the Radisson hotel and loved the area. Thinking of Chile as the country rebuilds. Shirley and Gord from Ontario Canada

  22. Hi- We haven’t been back yet to see how the rest of the town is doing, and I imagine that anyone staying at the Radisson that night–being right on the waterfront–must have had the scare of their lives! But the real damage lies farther south. There is so much work to be done. We see all the horror of what happened in Concepción and Maule, but what is much less visible is the tragedy of all the families who have lost their homes in a much larger span of the country.

  23. Pingback: Chile’s Earthquake-Santiago Aftermath « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  24. Pingback: 33 Miners: Comin’ Up! | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  25. Pingback: 8.8 Earthquake Expat Experiences – Chile

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