Chile’s Earthquake-Santiago Aftermath

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

Typical superficial plaster cracking, downtown Santiago

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

Two views of a severely damaged brick wall about to give way

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

Two views of the same brick wall in danger of topping

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

left: bricks from the building next door destroyed the roof of this house. right: Tin roof and fallen bricks among the rubble cleared from the house at left.

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

Left: Clearing the rubble, Av. Libertad. Right: Toppled bricks from the building next door

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

Left: now uninhabitable house in Barrio Yungay. Right: Newly homeless on Av. Cumming

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Yungay

Left: Newly homeless with all belongings in the Plaza Yungay. Right: Severe damage in this historic neighborhood

And then there’s the Basilica del Salvador…

Chile Earthquake Santiago Basilica Salvador

Basilica 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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Basilica del Salvador

Basilica del Salvador, Avenida Almirante Barrosa. Left: Support beams left from 1985 quake. Right: Altar facing the street.

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Brazil

"Once was home." Avenida Almirante Barroso, across from Basilica del Salvador

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Barrio Brazil

Happy to be alive. Avenida Almirante Barroso, across from the Basilica del Salvador

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.

Chile Earthquake Santiago Almirante Barroso

Awe-struck carabinero insiststhe property be evacuated

“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.

18 responses to “Chile’s Earthquake-Santiago Aftermath

  1. Yikes! Pretty hardcore. I wonder how my favorite bar fared. And sad too, in such a beautiful neighborhood. You didn’t happen to see if La Peluqueria Francesa is still alive and kicking, did you Peg?

  2. It’s one of my favorites too, and as far as I could tell it was just fine!

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  4. Wow, very powerful post, especially the last story about the woman thanking God. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Going through and sharing this experience with Chileans will create a different bond between you and Chile/Chileans.
    Many things are gone, but hope and will remain with all of us, to stand up and rebuild our country, now your country too, Margaret and Kyle.

  6. Thanks Tyffanie–more to come, I’m afraid…
    Marmo- yes indeed… several Chileans have said to me: “Now you can understand how we think… now you are really one of us!”

  7. Wow. I hadn’t seen too many pictures of Santiago yet. Thanks for posting these.

  8. Yeah… there’s a LOT we haven’t seen yet. All the attention is on the areas that were most affected, but there are hundreds of places between Santiago and Maule that have gone unnoticed, despite their great need!

  9. Hello Margaret,
    These tragedies are difficult to deal with, fortunately these events bring out the best in most people. The older couple you mention in this post are a good example of that. They have each other and they will persevere. Out of that rubble a stronger relationship will emerge and unbelievably, someday they will snub their noses at the earthquake and say “We defeated you, you did not defeat us.” and life moves on. We are no strangers to earthquakes in Japan, but we have abundant resources to bounce back quickly. The Chileans will bounce back as well, albeit at a slower pace, they have been through Pinochet, earthquakes and poverty.
    Take care
    John

  10. Hi John- although this is my first big quake in Chile, I WAS here for the alluvión (mudslide) in 1993, the drought & apagones (blackouts) (in 1998 I believe), and all sorts of other major problems… The country has an amazing ability to pull itself up by the bootstraps and keep going.
    And the fact that fewer than 500 people were killed in a quake of this magnitude shows its level of preparedness.
    Chile will come back from this much stronger. I am certain!

  11. Margaret

    Such great photos! I am out of Santiago in the country and only see media photos. The photo of the woman sweeping with a smile in front of the destruction is just award winning. Some call it God, some call it Nature and I don’t think it matters much-the power was life-changing. Thank you for this other side. Keep up the good work!

  12. Laura-
    Thank you for your comments! As you say, whether you call it God or Nature or something else, people draw their strength from many sources. In Chile it not only shapes the geography, but the people as well.

  13. Great article Peg, as always it is great to read your perspective.

  14. Ah! Annje- Thanks! Always great to hear from the fan club… got an update on your much-awaited arrival? We are anxiously awaiting and even got the 25-year terremoto out of the way to be able to welcome you in style!

  15. It breaks my heart…
    Thank you so much Margaret for this touching article…
    Love and light to all…
    Solange

  16. Thanks Solange… there have been many touching stories & moments these past 10 days…

  17. Thank you for bringing the reality of my Chile a little closer to my heart. I can only imagine the suffering of those who lost everything. Thanks for telling us of what you saw

  18. It has certainly been an emotional 10 days… And so far today alone we’ve had 17 “aftershocks”… 3 of which hovered around 7 on the Richter scale–all within a half hour–2 just before the inauguration and 1 during! What a day!

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