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.