My Return to Santiago Post-Earthquake

I left Santiago the Thursday before the incredible events of that Saturday morning in late February 2010.  As I woke up that Saturday morning at home, I looked at my Blackberry and I had a news alert about an 8.8 earthquake in Chile.  My heart stopped.  I had just left there.  I have friends and co-workers there.  Immediately I turned on the TV to hear about what had happened.  Was Santiago heavily impacted?  Were my friends OK?  I also set up shop with my laptop getting Chilean local TV (thank you Internet).  Between the US-based news network and the local Chilean one on my PC, I had a good amount of info coming in.  I sat like that for the majority of that Saturday taking every bit of info in.  (I was exhausted and over-stimulated by the end of the day.)

I slowly gathered that Santiago had mostly been spared, though heavily shaken.  I learned about the destruction in Concepción, Talcahuano and other places that I have not visited.  I heard about the tsunami and I heard the news clip of the Chilean President saying “there was no tsunami concerns” (this info she was given, she didn’t make it up).  Eventually, I finally began to hear from friends and co-workers.  Everyone seemed to be fine.  But, in a way, they were not.  Most seemed very shaken (figuratively).  Aftershocks continued to happen, some of them didn’t feel safe in the buildings they were at, water and power cuts were going on, etc.

My ex-pat co-workers finally were gotten out of the country a few days later via a chartered flight to Buenos Aires.  The stories of the shaking they experienced that night were pretty incredible and scary.  The shaking lasted anywhere between 3 and 4 minutes.  Some could not stay standing up during it.  The worst, I am told, was the noise while the shaking was happening…

So, after some weeks of travel freeze, we were allowed to go back to Chile by our company.  I wanted to go and see everyone but I was not sure how I would feel when aftershocks occurred.  We landed in Santiago and, as expected, the jetway was not operable so we deplaned the old-fashioned way and were taken by bus to the immigration area.  You could see the damage to the false ceiling and things like that.  Once we cleared customs, we had to walk to a tent area on the parking lot to get to the taxi area.  The taxi area had been moved partly due to the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in the departures area right above where taxis normally wait on line for arrivals.

Driving into the city to go to the hotel, I did not notice damage.  Once at the hotel, some damage was still in evidence in the atrium glass ceiling.  Upon closer inspection I could see small cracks in different parts of the building.  But, it did not seem there had been much damage (I should say, by the time I arrived).  Once I went towards the city center, where the offices are, the damage was more visible as that is an older part of town that probably predates building codes that kept many Chileans alive through the earthquake and the many subsequent aftershocks.  A lot of the plaster outside of buildings had cracked or fallen, including in our own building.  In some cases, walls bulged or cracked.  At work, the cracks were quite evident all through the building.  Saddest of all was seeing the damage to the church on the Plaza Yungay near our favorite “sanguïchería” (Chilean-style sandwich sandwich shop).  The cracks are everywhere and especially near the base of the belltower.  It is not a magnificent church, just an old local church that I find charming.

Quake Damage near Work

In the 2 weeks I spent there I felt one aftershock, though there had been a few.  They were all small so probably the reason I didn’t feel them – but the locals did.  Invariably at different moments, people would ask “did you feel it?”  And I would go “feel what?”  “La réplica” (the aftershock).  The only one I felt (a reasonable 4.5) I felt only because a co-worker I was with said “can you feel it?  it is shaking” as he pointed as his computer flat-screen monitor.  I told him “that’s because I am writing on your desk and moving it some”.  He then pointed to the window blinds, surely not impacted by my writing movements, and yes, they were moving.  It lasted like 30 seconds and was not much of anything but it was a reminder, once more, of the recent events.  I realized that the locals having gone through that incredible earthquake have now a heightened sensitivity that I, not having been there, do not have.  The stories of the weeks after the earthquake were about the constant aftershocks, many of them not trivial, like the one I felt.  I remember being in calls with folks in Chile in the 3 weeks after the quake and at random times, they would go “hold on, it is shaking”.  Some times they would resume talking, sometimes they would say, “we are leaving the room, it is a strong one”.

I left Chile yesterday.  Firstly, I hope Chile is spared more quakes other than the small aftershocks.  Actually, I hope they are spared even those.  They have had enough.  Secondly, I hope Chileans recognize that their seriousness about code and having responsible governments has paid off in saved lives, in lower damage and repairs needed, and it mental peace about their safety.  Thirdly, I am glad I did not go through the 8.8 as I don’t know how I would have handled it.  And finally, I can’t wait to get back to such an awesome place and hope that those who have not been to Chile and explored its beauty still try do so and don’t let fear of tremors keep them from going…

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