By Diego Salvatierra
SANTIAGO—When natural disasters only affect a few, their appearance in national memory is fleeting.
A massive earthquake, 8.8 on the Richter scale, struck south-central Chile on Saturday, February 27th, close to 3 am in the morning local time. The disaster left vast parts of the country devastated, with hundreds of lives lost, coastal towns swallowed up by tsunamis, and hundreds of thousands left without food, water, power, or shelter. Widespread looting occurred in several cities, notably Concepcion, the nation’s second largest, and the historic colonial-era cores of several cities have utterly collapsed.
As a Chilean myself, I understand how this earthquake changed the lives of all Chileans. But seeing all this destruction from New Haven, so far away, felt almost surreal to me. Watching the videos and looking at the photos made it seem like something out of a post-apocalyptic scenario. I’ve been here in Chile for the summer, and beyond some cracks on buildings and highways under repair, I haven’t really seen much destruction, since I’m far away from the most affected areas, and most shattered buildings had been cleared away or rebuilt in the months before I arrived. But I’ve heard some shocking stories from friends about the night of the quake and the chaotic days that followed.
Andrés Ibañez, a young law student, noted that in the morning following the quake, the beachside apartment he had been staying at had become an “apocalyptic scene,” with the “floor literally broken in two,” shattered glass, and rubble from the upper stories strewn all over the ground outside. His escape from the building the night before (they later returned for some of their belongings) portrays the uncertainty felt by many that night. With cell phone lines down, nobody was really sure what was going on. Rumors of a tsunami warning led him and his friends to leave the coast. Upon arriving in Santiago the following day, the situation was not much better. “We tried to buy bread, but everything was closed,” and there were “unending lines for gasoline.” Andrés described how on the way to downtown Santiago, “many houses were on the ground, people crying, crumbled churches… rubble from buildings lay on the streets,” leading him to realize that “luckily the earthquake had been at night…or else the deaths would have been in the thousands.”
Sleeping in his grandparents’ house in the countryside south of Santiago, Cristobal Gomez, another university student, awoke when a wooden beam from the ceiling hit his head. The house was built of adobe, and though it had withstood a hundred years of earthquakes, rubble and dust started to fall everywhere. Unable to reach the door due to falling furniture, Cristobal was only able to get out of his room once the shaking stopped, allowing him to search for his family.
A cloud of very dense dust had begun to spread throughout the shattered home, making him cough hard. “I found my uncle barely breathing,” said Cristobal, “and my grandmother up to her waist in rubble” in her room, whose roof had collapsed, making the night sky visible. His father, at his side by this point, also began fainting from the dust cloud. Cristobal knew that if he waited too long, he would faint as well, and with a burst of adrenaline began to kick open doors and windows, attempting to clear out the choking cloud. It worked, and with the help of his dad and uncle, Cristobal managed to liberate his grandmother. Getting out with only minor injuries, they saw the full extent of the damage, the house now left uninhabitable, with broken walls and a caved-in roof.
A few days later, walking around the stunned city, Nicolas, another friend of mine, saw a somber icon of the disaster. The University of Chile Law School, where he studies, has a tall clock tower, and it lay still, marking 3:34, the time of the tragedy that shut down a nation.
Chile will probably need years to recover. For some people, especially the better-off, life has returned to normal. But hundreds of thousands saw their lives changed irrevocably, their homes and livelihoods destroyed in a matter of minutes. The psychological aftermath was also significant – I heard stories of the panic in people’s eyes when aftershocks struck, for weeks after the big quake. I know Chile will rise to the challenge – it has done so before, and it stands united. There is a sense of optimism about the future, about not simply rebuilding, but improving what we had before. The painful memories of that late summer night, however, will serve as a stern reminder of the power of nature, of how everything can change in a mere three minutes.