Sunday, February 27, 2011

The earthquake jacket

One year ago today, Chile shook.

After the earth stopped moving, my Chilean roommate told me to put on "evacuation clothes," a phrase I'm guessing means more to seismically schooled Chileans than novice gringas. I figured he was referring to something that would protect me from the elements better than bare feet and pajamas, so I threw together an outfit that included this jacket, pictured here in Central Park:

In the end, we didn't have to evacuate, but I kept the jacket on as we sat around the radio in the dark and listened to the first news reports and, after the power came back on, swept up the chunks of plaster that had fallen from the walls. I kept it on after the sun rose and began to shine through the blanket of dust that hung over the city; I kept it on when I went out to survey the damage around the neighborhood and felt the summer day begin to heat up. I wore that jacket for the better part of the next few days; I even slept in it sometimes. When I wasn't wearing it, it was usually close at hand.

Of the people I know, those who suffered the most anxiety after February 27, 2010 were those who had been on the upper floors of tall buildings when the quake hit. In Chile, tall buildings are designed to dance; the fact that they're flexible that makes them less likely to suffer serious damage during an earthquake. Ironically, what makes these buildings safe is precisely what makes them terrifying places to be when the earth starts to shift. "I had completely accepted that I was going to die," a resident of one of the upper floors of a Santiago apartment tower told me at a Chilean independence day celebration in New York last September.

After the earthquake, many of these people tried to feel safer by staying with relatives in one-story houses or by making sure they were never in their apartments alone. I was at ground level when the tectonic plates did their dance and am therefore convinced that my experience was not nearly as frightening as that of those who were higher up at the time. Still, I was rattled, and I think the jacket was what made me aware of it. I realized that the jacket made me feel safe; I was like a two-year-old with a blankie that had snaps and a zipper.

Interestingly, I wasn't the only one who looked for security in clothing. Over the next couple days, I noticed that people were walking around bundled up in the middle of summer. Maybe we wanted to ensure we were prepared in the case of a violent aftershock; maybe the 8.8 experience had simply left us all feeling chilly. Whatever the reason, a lot of santiaguinos tried to wear safety in the days following the earthquake. It may have looked strange, but it made a whole lot of sense.

For me, it's easy to talk about the Chilean earthquake as if it were a thing of the past, but there are still so many people -- like those who lost loved ones or saw their homes crumble around them -- for whom last year's disaster is a living daily reality. Here's hoping they feel some warmth today.