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Earthquake in Chile

Personal Experience

Whenever Ximena and I spend time in Chile, she plans a relaxing week away from the bustle of Santiago with her mom, at one of Chile’s lovely and popular pre-montain thermal spas. This provides a respite for me, during which I usually explore parts of Chile I love, and she is less anxious to see. We scheduled just such a “week-away” to begin on Tuesday, February, February 23. At 10 AM on that day, Ximena and I picked up Ximena’s mom, and we left Santiago to travel via the Panamerican highway south to a hot springs resort, Termas de Panimavida, where the ladies were scheduled to spend a few days. We arrived at about 2 PM, I had lunch with them, and I took off to Cauquenes and Chanco, two rural villages in the Province of Maule, to join up with Ximena’s sister, Veronica, and her husband Joaquin Pedreros. They run a small sawmill in Chanco, but live in a small house they built on a bluff overlooking a small fishing village named Loanco. Chanco is a few kilometers south of Constitucion, and a short ride in oxcart from Empedrado. My plan was to spend a couple of days with them, and then continue on to Arauco, a small town south of Concepcion, to visit Enrique del Rio, an old friend with whom I worked in the Instituto Forestal when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1967-1970. I had not heard from this friend for 40 years, but wanted to find him if possible, since he had been very helpful to me and had even taken me to his home in Arauco where he and his father and a brother introduced me to raw “cholgas”, a huge mussel that can only be swallowed with great amounts of vino blanco. (The Cholga is so unique and challenging to eat, that it deserves, and will be the target of, a separate essay.)

I spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night with Veronica and Joaquin, mostly reading and walking on the very long, solitary, beautiful beach below their home, and of course enjoying fresh fish from the cold Pacific waters off shore and delicious wine from the Maule valley. On Friday, Feb. 26, Veronica and Joaquin left their home early to spend some time at work and then travel on to Santiago that night, so I left in my car en route to Arauco, about 150 kilometers to the south, on the other side of the Bio Bio river . I had not yet been able to contact my friend, Enrique, so I did not know if I was going to be able to locate him. I stopped first in Pelluhue, just a few kilometers from Chanco, along the coast, to visit with Ximena’s brother, Claudio, who spends the summers in Pelluhue with his wife Tatiana and youngest child Catalina. After a short visit, I continued my drive along the coast towards Concepcion and Arauco.

At this point I was able to contact the phone I had for Enrique, but to my great sadness I was informed by his widow Naya, that Enrique had passed away 15 years ago. In spite of Enrique’s absence, she insisted I come for a visit anyway, to talk with her about Enrique and to meet his children, so I decided to continue my trip towards Arauco and stop by her home for a visit on Saturday. I drove along a very beautiful coastal road south from Curanipe, through two small coastal towns Cobquecura and Buchupureo, small fishing villages and places where many Chileans and foreigners, including many surfers, camp on the beach and rent modest bungalows during the summer. Then, I turned inland and had lunch in the small rural town of Quirihue. My plan was then to head down the coastal road to a small fishing village and vacation spot just north of Concepcion and Tome, named Dichato. This is a very popular beach town for residents of Chillan and Concepcion, that I had never visited, so I wanted to spend the night in Dichato and then continue on to Arauco the next day to visit Naya.

I arrived in Dichato at about 4 PM, and drove around, looking for a place to stay. I noted that this place was just like a lot of other coastal towns in Chile, quaint, filled with young and old alike enjoying the beach, the sun and the seafood, all in abundance. But, also like other small Chilean towns, there was no place for a traveler like me to spend a comfortable night. Mostly there were houses and cabanas with rooms for rent, and one ratty hotel I did not like the looks of. I made a swing through town and along the seafront street one more time to check it out, and saw a young lady leaning on a fence in front of a bunch of cabins clearly for rent (the cabins). I thought about stopping to ask if she would rent me one of the cabins for a night, but then thought better of that idea and decided to continue on to Concepcion to find a hotel. (Sometimes you make good decisions….although at the time you may not know why!)

Late in the afternoon, I drove into the bustling city of Concepcion, through Talcahuano, the port, and found a small oldish, traditional hotel, Alonzo de Ercilla, just a couple of blocks from the central Plaza de Armas. I liked it because in was a classic Chilean hotel, and I could drive my car straight into a driveway next to the hotel to park my car in a garage behind the hotel. I checked in and asked for a room on the top floor (4th) where the noise would be less from the street. And I went out to explore the city a bit. I had a nice dinner, watched a bit of television (Festival de Vina del Mar, a performance by the old favorite Spaniard Rafael who, unfortunately, during the performance lost one of his false teeth!!), and then I went to sleep. Little did I know this was going to be a very interesting night.

At about 3:30 AM, the big earthquake hit. It took me a bit to figure out what was happening, but after I did, I was not able to do anything except hold on just to keep from being tossed onto the floor, into the air, against the wall…I didn’t know what was going to happen. It seemed like the whole hotel was crumbling around me, windows breaking, TV into the air then onto the floor, desk and chair flying around. It lasted over two minutes…an eternity. The noise was deafening…like a freight train going through the room over the foot of the bed. And when it stopped, it didn’t stop. It just kept shaking, up and down, back and forth, every direction. I had to piss. So I picked up my cell phone from the floor and used its light to find the bathroom. The light worked, luckily, but phone service was already completely cut off. Then I tried to gather my belongings and stuff them into my bag to go downstairs. I had stuff all over the floor, and it was dark. I got everything into my bag except for, I realized later, a couple of books I was reading, and my cute little wireless mouse I use with my mini computer.

It seemed after an eternity that the quake was calming down, so I looked out my broken window, down onto the courtyard behind the apartment building next to the hotel. People were beginning to congregate there, since in an earthquake most people run into the open air. They were calling up to the apartments trying to locate friends and family, some were wailing, some were praying, and one guy had found a bottle of something and was sharing it around. Every car alarm in the city was sounding and there were still sounds of things falling, glass breaking, and general chaos and alarm. All the dogs in Concepcion were barking. I tried to use the cell phone to locate Ximena, but it was not working. So I headed down the 4 flights of stairs, avoiding fallen furniture, electric wires, and broken glass until I reached the reception area on the ground floor.

About a dozen other guests and two night clerks were trying to figure out what had happened, and what to do. Aftershocks kept the place shaking, at times quite strongly. The night clerk asked me if I was OK, and I said yes but that I was worried about my car out back in the garage. He immediately said “if it is a grey one, a wall fell on it!!” It was still very dark (about 4 AM), so we took a lantern with us and went to look at the car. We had to walk over all the broken glass from 4 floors of big windows in the hotel and every now and then we suffered another aftershock and more broken glass. When we got to the garage it was obvious I had a problem. The adobe wall had fallen in on the front of my car, so the whole front was covered with bricks, rocks, plaster and wood beams. I told the clerk I thought I could drive the car out from under the pile if he would just hold up a piece of plywood that had fallen first onto the car. He did that, I fired up the engine and backed my car right out from under the wall, and he let the whole mess fall as I escaped. I left the car parked in a “safe” place, and went out to walk around the streets of Concepcion to see what was happening, and to await the day.

I walked around in the dark a bit, using my cell phone as light, but I realized soon that there was so much damage it was dangerous to walk around very much. Walls had fallen in, blocking streets. Electric wires were hanging all over the place, and water was running out of apartment and office buildings where pipes had broken. There was no way to know what other structure might fall in the next aftershock. I could see clouds of dark smoke over the city towards the University and Talcahuano, which meant there were dangerous and significant fires beginning. Every now and then there were loud, dull explosions, suspected to be gas from broken pipes. I went to the central plaza, which was full of people sleeping, talking, praying, and listening to Radio Bio Bio, the only radio functioning in Chile at the time. The radio was urging calm in the population, but other than that had nothing to say except that they were going to keep everyone informed if they had any information. Later, and this is pretty important, they reported that there was absolutely no risk of a tsunami. Not good information, as it turns out. Tsunamis were already invading Chile’s central coastline, and they eventually caused many deaths and did great damage all along the coast.

Anyway, about 3 hours after the quake, I was slowly deciding I needed to get out of town. Some streets were obviously blocked. The two-story building on the other side of the hotel collapsed into the street. (Maybe indicative of the recent presidential election Frei lost, the collapsed building was the central command of the Christian Democrat Party and the Frei campaign in Concepcion.) In one of my strolls around I noticed there was a car flattened under the building. I thought, humorously, “This guy is not going to drive his car out from under that wall like I did, for sure”. My humor was misplaced….we heard later on the radio that the flattened car actually did have a body in it….probably someone who had stopped to get a little sleep before continuing on a journey he never finished. The quake was awful, in itself, but I began to realize the consequences more broadly were probably going to be a lot worse than what I had been through, and that if I didn’t get going, I might get stuck in Concepcion once the authorities started to try to button down the place and attend to the destruction. So, I put my bag in my car, tried to pay my bill (they would not take it) and took off. I had about ¾ tank of gas, so thought I could probably get to Termas de Panimavida, where Ximena and her mother were. I had not been in touch with anyone, and was quite worried about what had happened to my family and friends, so wanted to get moving. I knew my kids and other family in the US and Panama, Ximena, and her family in Santiago would begin to wonder where I was, and what I was up to. At this point I assumed the damage was limited to Concepcion. There was still no information flowing about the extent of this earthquake.

I drove out of town without much trouble, since there was no traffic to speak of. I got to the new main road out of town, heading towards Chillan where I would get the Panamerican highway north. As I left Concepcion, and went up the hill out of town, I noticed thousands of people camping out along the highway, and I realized these were folks that were avoiding the tsunamis…they either had not been listening to the radio, or didn’t trust the information, but they got to high ground, and it is a good thing they did. We now know that not only did the south central coast suffer greatly by the earthquake itself, they also were the victims of a serious tsunami.

I drove to Chillan without much trouble, only an occasional detour to avoid large cracks in the highway and landslides that covered the road. In Chillan I chose to drive around the city, instead of entering the center of the city, and headed towards Parral. At Parral I had to leave the highway, due to either a bridge down or some other obstruction, and drove into Parral. Extensively destroyed, this central valley town, birthplace of Pablo Neruda, has lost between a half and two thirds of their homes, most of which were made of adobe, wood, tiles, and metal roofing. This is a very old town, and has suffered as much as anywhere. When I arrived, the town was already stuffed full of cars, trucks, and buses, with hundreds of travelers all trying to get out of town, either to the north or to the south, their journeys halted by the blockage in the north/south Panamerican highway. Half the town was in the streets, camping out, with tents, blankets, cooking over fires, or just praying and staring into the air. Very, very sad. I thought a set of photos would be incredible, and I had my camera, but decided I could not photograph this agony….driving through without stopping to help was enough of a burden. So, no photos from me. I thought I was never going to find a way out of town, everyone was looking for a way to get through. Finally, and luckily, a guy in the street yelled at me that if I was trying to get to Santiago, I should follow a truck and two cars that had just passed me, that they had found a way out and onto the Panamerican highway. So I followed the truck. (If he had driven over the mountains to Buenos Aires, I would be writing this in Buenos Aires.) I just followed him, through back streets, along dirt roads, until finally we got on the Panamerican highway and I headed north to Linares, very close to the Termas de Panimavida, where I knew Ximena and her mother were. However, I was running low on gas, and all the gas stations were closed. Without electricity, most gas stations in Chile don’t function; only those old-timers who also have a generator with a pump. Anyway, near Linares I got a text message from Ximena’s nephew, Caco, who was in touch with Ximena and my children in Panama and the US, and who was trying to figure out where I was. I tried to call him on my cell phone, and also Ximena, but those connections did not work. I called my mother-in-law who was with Ximena, and that connection for some reason worked…I was finally in touch and let them know I was well, in the area, but running out of gas. I hung around Linares trying to get some gas, but finally decided I was not going to get any there, at least not that day (it was still Saturday, only 9 hours after the quake!). I decided I would drive to the Termas, and at least be isolated there, if I didn’t find gas, with Ximena and her mother. Well, I got there, found some gasoline that evening in a nearby small town, and spent the night in the Termas, drinking tranquilizing quantities of vino.

Sunday we drove to Santiago, avoiding several downed bridges along the way, and arrived at our apartment to find lots of small scale damage, and quite a mess (broken glass from pictures, cracks in the walls and ceilings, all books and decorations scattered on the floor, etc.), but nothing serious, nothing structural. We are cleaning up, resting, getting our nerves back in shape, but that is not easy since there are regular aftershock quakes that remind us of the big one. And, so important, Ximena’s brother and family, and sister and husband, who live in Chanco and Pelluhue, are fine and safe in Santiago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that towns like Curico, Talca, Parral, Cauquenes, and Chillan have lost as much as half their infrastructure (hospitals, homes, stores, schools, roads, markets, stadiums), and most of their historical, mostly adobe, buildings (churches, municipalities, monuments). Full electricity coverage will take weeks and maybe months to come back. Water is a serious problem, and the longer these services take to regularize, the greater the risk of serious health problems.

The very bad news is that the coastal towns and villages of Constitucion, Cobquecura, Dichato, Pelluhue, Curanipe, Arauco, Iloca, and Llico de Vichuquen all suffered the same as the towns mentioned above, but also suffered the double devil of the tsunami, that has caused many deaths, missing persons, and very serious suffering.

And maybe the worst of all is the city of Concepcion and the port of Talcahuano. Besides all of the above problems, they are suffering serious looting and violence as thieves seem to be running rampant throughout the city and there is so far not much security. For apparently historical reasons the present government seems to be reticent to call in the military to apply discipline. The outgoing but still responsible “Intendente” in Concepcion is Jaime Toha, who has his own issues with the Chilean military. Anyway, they need to lock down Concepcion fairly soon, one way or another, and begin to activate services and begin the long recovery process.

My friend Dave Flickinger, who was initially planning to join me on this trip, missed all the excitement; he was fishing in Argentina with our common friend Ron Bloom, and is slowly returning to Santiago via the southern cities of Chaiten, Castro, Puerto Varas, and Osorno. He’ll have other tales to tell.

I’ll wrap this up. I didn’t get to see my friend Enrique in Arauco (because he died 15 years ago). I didn’t get to see his widow, Naya, or his children, and according to the news, Arauco is devastated and cut off from the rest of the country.

Ximena spent a nice week with her mother at Termas de Panimavida, although they are both shaken by the experience and so concerned about the suffering that is to come. My insurance will repair the car. My wireless mouse is probably lost forever in Concepcion.

Chile is facing a real rebuilding challenge. The new administration of Sebastian Pinera will face very serious problems immediately upon taking over on March 11, but starting out fresh with plenty of “ingenieros” (a source of criticism by the opposition Concertacionistas) on the cabinet may help. It will take the Chilenos awhile to bring their economy, their cities, towns, and “campos” in Maule and Bio Bio back to their normal optimistic vitality, but if anyone can do it, Chilenos can.

So join me, and all Chilenos, in one big VIVA CHILE, MIERDA.

Written in Santiago, Chile, on February 29, 2010.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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