It’s been a long week. I posted my personal experience of last week’s earthquake immediately after it occurred, but then, as the news began to show the depths of the tragedy that hit this country in ever greater detail, I found it harder and harder to write about it. Like everyone here, I thought of little else, but it’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around something of this 8.8 magnitude. I’m sure there are many of us in Chile who have recalled the expression “there but for the grace of God go I” this week. With knotted stomach and wrenched heart, my thoughts have gone round and round and changed so often that it has been hard to pin them down at any one time.
My words are now starting to come back, but let’s start with pictures…
On Sunday, the day after what is now being called Chile’s Bicentennial Earthquake, I had the opportunity to visit some people and homes in and around Santiago’s Barrio Yungay–one of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods–and could see first hand that while my own neighborhood had mostly been spared, not everyone in town was as fortunate.
Although the national and international news has focused on the south and coastlines of Constitución and Maule, where the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis were far more severe, the magnitude 8.5 that reached the capital shook Santiago to its very core and was violent enough to significantly damage or destroy many of its older buildings–often made of adobe–that predated the current strict building codes, and piles of curbside rubble were a common site in this largely residential neighborhood.
Newer and better-constructed buildings generally fared quite well and proved the efficacy of the country’s strict building code that requires new buildings to withstand a force equivalent to that of the world’s strongest earthquake to date, the 9.5 magnitude quake that rocked Valdivia in 1960.
Many of the older structures sustained significant damage, however, as is the case of this apartment building on Capuchinos, near the Barrio Yungay. Most of the building shows considerable plaster cracking (as shown in the first set of photos), but no structural damage. The back wall of the uppermost apartment, however, did fare as well. It did not fall–as many others did around town–but did tear loose and now threatens to collapse onto the building behind it.
In fact, many bricks did fall that night. The outside of the same brick wall is seen in the upper part of the picture below. It dropped enough bricks and debris to pummel the tin roof of this house (below left ) and fill its narrow corridor with the rubble that is seen on the curb in the right side of the photo.
On Avenida Libertad I stopped to talk with the people in this very attractive “pasaje” (below)–a typical housing arrangement found in Santiago, often called a “cité,” which consists of a small community of connected houses on either side of a closed-off lane. From the outside it appears remarkably intact, but they were carting buckets upon buckets of bricks, mortar, and assorted debris to the curb. They invited me in to see their patios. While the homes themselves withstood the quake in good form–as they had many quakes before–the building next door had shed its bricks and filled their patios with debris, destroying laundry facilities, new bicycles, storage areas, and even added-on bedrooms, which fortunately were unoccupied that night. They had been battling with the municipality from the moment the offending building was constructed, rightly insisting that it was not up to code.
Chileans are no strangers to earthquakes, and they know that the big ones are always followed by réplicas–aftershocks. There have already been dozens–perhaps hundreds–in the past week. Seismologists have warned that they will likely continue for a couple months. Most are very mild, but we are all jumpy, although at this point, many of us are pretty fed up with the whole thing. For those whose homes were struck hardest, however, aftershocks bring more than inconvenience. Any one of them can be the flick of nature’s finger that brings the building down like a house of cards. As a result, many people are camped out wherever there’s a clearing within site of their homes, where they are safe from danger yet still able to keep vigil on their belongings.
The area directly around Plaza Yungay was particularly hard hit, and many of the buildings were home to extended families and communities of foreign residents who often rent rooms in already crowded dwellings. The Plaza now looks like a giant garage sale as people have moved their belongings out of the buildings that now pose threats rather than providing shelter.
And then there’s the Basilica del Salvador…
This church at Huerfanos 1781 was completed in 1892. This National Monument was heavily damaged by the 1985 earthquake and repairs had never been completed. It was in limited use and was still supported by large trunks that held up its sides 25 years later when the Bicentennial Earthquake finished off what its predecessor had left behind.
The homes directly across from the church on Avenida Almirante Barrosso were among the worst that I saw that day. All that remains is a facade that blocks the heap of rubble from view.
The most amazing thing I saw that morning was this woman, across from the church, sweeping the entry to her home. I stopped to speak with her and she explained that she and her husband had been trapped inside by a beam that had fallen in such a way that it prevented the hailing bricks from crushing them beneath their weight. “I kept crying out Thank you God! Thank you God!” she told me and the others who had stopped to listen to her tale.
Why was she sweeping, I wondered. “Can the house be repaired?” I asked. She smiled again. “No. It’s gone. All gone. My husband is working inside,” she explained, “but we aren’t sleeping here. Come in and look if you like.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no “in.” Nature’s wrecking ball had done a most thorough job. The destruction was complete.
As I stood on a 3-meter pile of what had once been a living room–or maybe a kitchen–there was no way to tell–I heard an authoritative voice saying, “Señora, you can’t be in here. Leave this to the municipality.” It was a carabinero–a police officer.
“What’s your husband’s name, ma’am?” Carlos, she answered.
“Don Carlos” he calls out to the battered remnants of a home, of the life this couple had built. “Don Carlos, you have to come out of there.” I never did see Don Carlos, but knew it was time for me to heed his warning.
I left, haunted by all I had seen that day, but most of all by the face of a woman, smiling as she swept, for the last time, the entrance to what was once her home. “Thank you God,” she had said. Words that I would hear over and over as the week went by. Words uttered by those who had lost their homes, but grateful their lives had been spared.
Last week was about shock, and horror, and mourning. But Chileans don’t dwell there long. No one reaches adulthood in this country without knowing the experience of a major earthquake. They may be spared this time, but maybe not the next. This is life. And life goes on. “Thank you God,” they say. And they build again.