Saturday, February 27, 2010

The earthquake

At about 3:30 a.m. this morning, plate tectonics caught up with central Chile. Common wisdom holds that the area is hit by a major earthquake about once every 20 years, which means that the region, which last suffered a major earthquake in 1985, was "overdue." It wasn't unusual to hear people warn that the big one would strike "any day now."

As you probably already know from news reports, "any day now" turned out to be today. I awoke in a bed that was rocking back and forth. I'm pretty used to minor tremors by now, though, so I didn't think much of it until I realized it wasn't stopping. My cue to jump out of bed was when the entire house started to make noise. Windows buzzed and ceilings creaked as I bolted toward the doorway, which I'd heard was one of the safest places to stand indoors during an earthquake.

When I called out for my roommate, he and his girlfriend shouted for me to come stand with them in another doorway. When I arrived, they looked frazzled. Seeing that these two Chileans, for whom seismic activity has always been just another part of life, were nervous was what made me realize that this was for real.

Before I knew it, we were all running out onto the patio. I wasn't -- and am still not -- sure that this was a safe thing to do, since I knew that a lot of earthquake injuries take place when people run outside and are hit by falling debris. As the wood beams stacked against the patio wall clattered to the ground and the trellis rained grapes, we stood hanging onto each other until the ground stopped rocking and the house stopped creaking behind us.

When we finally reentered the house, paint chips crunched under our feet, and I could hear water rushing down a newly forged crack in one of the walls. My roommate and his girlfriend told me to put on evacuation clothes so we could leave the house. I wasn't convinced that going out onto the street was such a good idea, but I was in no state to question Chileans on the subject. Not quite sure what evacuation clothes were, I put on jeans, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes. I then quickly stuffed my pockets with what I considered the essentials: my Chilean identity card, my cell phone, the first bill I could grab -- which ended up being worth $2000 pesos, or about US$4 -- and Chapstick. That's right: When people start talking evacuation, my first thoughts are of Chapstick.

As it turned out, we weren't evacuated. Instead, we spent the next hour or so sitting around a pair of candles (I'm starting to question a lot of our choices) chatting as the aftershocks made the earth shiver beneath us. Since we had no cell phone service, internet or television, our only means of access to information about what had just happened was my battery-powered radio, which had taken a nose dive from a dresser but was still in working order. From it, we learned that the earthquake's epicenter was located offshore a handful of hours south of Santiago; it was very strong here, so I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been down there. We also heard the first reports of earthquake-related deaths.

It was only after the power came back on that we were able to assess the damage the house had sustained. Huge cracks scarred the walls, chunks of which had fallen away. Pieces of furniture, many of them large and heavy, had traveled across the floor. Drawers had slid open and objects had fallen to the ground. Perhaps most frighteningly, two of the columns holding up the trellis on the patio were deeply cracked. We had been standing just a few feet away from them.

We set to the task of cleaning up the rubble. Everything in my room seemed to be covered in dust. While I was sweeping chunks of plaster into a pile around 7:30 a.m., my cell phone alarm rang, reminding me that I was scheduled to show up at work shortly thereafter. (Yes, I work on Saturdays. Don't be jealous.) After unsuccessfully trying to get in touch both with my company and with the main operator at the building where I work, though, I decided there was no way in hell I was making the commute. After all, public transportation was spotty at best, and President Bachelet had issued a statement asking people to stay at home if possible. I also figured that there was no way my company could expect me to show up for work in a crowded building where damages hadn't yet been carefully assessed.

Instead of going to work, I grabbed my video camera and headed out into the neighborhood. A water pipe had burst and had created a fast-flowing river on the side of the street. Soaking in this river were downed cables, which had been hanging low enough over the street after the quake for a bus to tear them down. Half of the facade of the building on the corner was lying in boulders on the sidewalk. Down the street, I could see into the inside of a house whose outer wall had crumbled. Other houses, like mine, had smaller chunks missing from their facades.

This may sound disastrous, but it's nothing compared to what happened further south near the epicenter. All reports indicate that this was a true tragedy for many people. It's difficult to imagine that at about this time last year, I was on vacation near Talca, a city that charmed me with a historic center that is now heaped in rubble.

Please send good vibes Chile's way. Meanwhile, I'm going to try to sleep for the first time since 3:30 a.m. Then I'm going to research earthquake safety. What I found most frightening about this experience was not the earth moving beneath my feet but rather the fact that everyone seems to have conflicting ideas about what the safest course of action is in these cases. Next time, should I head for the doorway, make a run for the patio or dive under the table? Time to read up.


Lou said...

Glad to see more and more bloggers posting that they are okay! What a terrifying experience!

Earthquake safety has always been something I kept meaning to look up...but just have never gotten around to. This is definitely a wake up call to get things together and know what to do in this kind of a situation.

Like yourself, I have heard conflicting reports of what to do whenan earthquake hits...nobody really seems to know for sure. Time to start reading up if I´m going to be living there!

noel said...

Leigh - Continue to be safe and keep those "evacuation clothes" handy!

Sending positive thoughts to the beautiful country of Chile...

dregonzrob said...

I had the exact same evacuation outfit. I wonder if it's the go-to outfit for those of us who aren't originally from here ...

I agree with not being sure if all decisions made were sound. We bolted out of our apartment only because we wanted to make sure our respective moms where ok. If that hadn't been a pressing issue, I'm sure we would have stayed put. In the end, we stayed with our moms outside - God knows why! I think it's because people feel safe that way. Even right now, our neighbors across the hall have their door wide open ... now when does THAT happen in Chile?
Good to know you're safe though. That was a scary one... can't begin to imagine how it felt near the epicenter.

Abby said...

Yeah I had heard that the elevator shaft was the safest place (if you're in a large building) so I headed there. Then I went back to my apartment. The damage wasn't bad at all so I stayed put despite the fact it swayed back and forth with every little tremor causing me mini panic attacks every time. I later talked to a Chilean and he was like "You didn't go outside?? Why not? I can't believe you stayed in your apartment" but I think it's wiser to stay put if you know your building isn't going to collapse than be on the street where you can get hit by debris, etc. But you're right. I should research this and not only rely on common sense.

I'm glad you're okay and that your trellis didn't fall on your head!

Kelsey C-M said...


What an amazing story. So scary and surreal. It's nice, however, to see you still have such a wonderful way with words. Glad you're safe!

Shannon said...

I would wear the same thing for evac clothes, but I wasn't instructed to change my clothes by my family. I was handed a cigarette by my sister in law and a hoodie by my husband as I wasn't allowed to go into the house, but just out of curiosity, what are Chilean's evacuation clothes?