RETURN TO MAULE
On February 28, the day after the earthquake that shook and hammered the central south of Chile, Ximena, her mother, and I returned to Santiago . We, like many others in Santiago, suffered some damage to our 8th floor apartment but nothing, really, compared to what I had seen in Concepcion and Parral as I made my way back north just a couple of hours after the quake. Santiago was spared major damage, except for in several poorer neighborhoods on the south side of Santiago, a few poorly built apartment buildings in two lower middle class neighborhoods, and the older historically important neighborhoods near downtown Santiago known for the classical adobe construction. Also, several recently constructed bridges and overpasses collapsed on the high-speed roads that circle Santiago, so traffic was problematic for a couple of days until detours could be established and repairs begun. The early panic buying of food, household products, and gasoline waned in a couple of days, and the city returned almost to normal within the week.
During the first few days after the quake, news and pictures of the destruction in the south began to define the depth and breadth of the destruction, but the reality of the tragedy had not sunk in. On March 2, five days after the quake, Ximena prepared a nice reception for 25 family members at our home in Santiago for my 66th birthday, and we all ate and drank like sailors ashore, relieved we were well and together, but with one eye out (and nerves hyper alert) for the frequent aftershocks that were uncomfortably frequent. To make things more uncertain, everyone in Chile knows (or at least suspects) that after a big earthquake like this one (8.8 on the Richter scale), there will be strong aftershocks (“replicas”, in Spanish). The problem is that these aftershocks can come the next day, or not for two or three months. So even though we were getting back to normal, we were all plenty edgy. My old boss in Peace Corps Chile during the ‘70s, Gerry Foucher, was even sleeping in his car outside his apartment, instead of in his 8th floor apartment a few blocks from our place in Providencia. But for the most part, Santiaguinos were preparing for the opening of schools the next week, and the much awaited inauguration of the new President, Sebastian Pinera, scheduled for March 11.
However, most Chileans while focused on these two important events were also beginning to assess and share information regarding the early response to the quake and the tsunamis by the government emergency relief institutions. It was beginning to look and feel a lot like New Orleans and the hurricane Katrina response (or lack of response) in the US during the Bush administration. Slow and some wrong public warning (including from Bachelet herself) regarding the threat of tsunamis in the coastal towns of Bio Bio and Maule Provinces caused consternation, especially as it became clear that there was good information about tsunami possibilities passed to the key Chilean disaster alert offices from the global alert system based in the US. The consternation turned to anger. On top of this, the initial unwillingness of the Bachelet folks to call out the army to assist the federal police with public safety in the face of serious looting and theft in the early hours after the quake, especially in urban Concepcion, Chillan, Talca, Curico and Constitucion was also leading to a growing level of discontent and nasty criticism of Bachelet. Though the criticisms seem now to be mostly warranted, it is sad that this very popular President, who led a successful presidency, should end her term with the negative effects of this natural kiss of death. It will probably turn out that she was not well served by her key advisors, who were possibly more concerned about her image then they were about the victims of this tragedy. How much blame for the slow response really belongs with the Bachelet administration will certainly come out over the next few weeks and months, since the Pinera folks hold the bully pulpit now and are not anywhere as concerned about Bachelet’s legacy as is she. We shall see.
As it became painfully clear that there were whole towns and villages completely destroyed, mostly in the poor relatively isolated areas of coastal south central Chile, large groups of young students from Santiago, not yet in classes, filled cars, trucks, and buses with food, water, tents, blankets, clothes, and medicines, and headed south to assist their compatriots. Confusion was the order of the day, though, in part because communications were very difficult with the most affected places, and the overlay of high level attention from both the outgoing Bachelet and incoming Pinera authorities made it even more difficult to coordinate the response. On top of this, Bachelet and her people (and the Santiago international airport) were distracted early on from direct relief activities by the visits of international “friends” like Lula from Brazil, Correa from Ecuador, Garcia from Peru, Cristina from Argentina, Bon of the UN, and our own Secstate HRC (a previously scheduled visit), each bringing satellite phones, relief supplies, moral support, and promises of future support. Of course each required valuable face time with the media, security services for them and their huge entourages, and the time of Chilean officials, especially Bachelet who probably should have been organizing the relief effort. In a real ironic twist, good neighbor Evo Morales sent a plane load of land-locked Bolivian water to the Chileans.
The initial suggestion by Chilean representatives that Chile could handle this emergency themselves, and did not need assistance, probably stems from a developing sense of self confidence bordering on bravura broadly exhibited in today’s official Chile. After all, the first Latin American country about to become a member of the OECD should be able to take care of itself! However, these same officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mariano Fernandez, soon were backtracking a bit with the explanation that their earlier declarations of self-sufficiency were meant to provide the time they needed to evaluate their real and immediate needs before shipments of goods and offers of services began to flow from donor countries, so as to avoid flooding the country with unneeded and unwanted stuff that could not be delivered to victims and instead jam up airports and staging areas. This of course is not a bad approach, because many early shipments of relief goods from donor countries although well meaning, often are of little practical use. But the early expressions of self sufficiency in the face of a tragedy this large smack of exaggerated pride, surely somewhat humbled since by the true extent of this tragedy.
So, in a climate of increasing grief for the victims, much too slow delivery of essential food, water and essential services, laudable efforts by many to help, political recriminations of the Bachelet disaster response team, repeated seismic aftershocks, and the imminent Presidential hand off, I began to get the urge to visit the most affected area and see for myself the places I had not seen during my return from Concepcion the day after the quake. My initial idea was to try to revisit the coastal towns I had visited the day before the quake: Chanco, Pelluhue, Curanipe, Boyancura, Cobquecura, Dichato, and maybe Concepcion. I even thought maybe I could visit my Chilean colleagues’ widow Naya and family in Arauco (where I was headed on Feb. 27), and maybe even recover my wireless mouse and the two books I left in my rush to evacuate my hotel room the morning of the quake.
Ximena’s sister Veronica and her husband Joaquin had returned from Santiago several days after the quake to their home and sawmill near Chanco, and had reported that while the towns there were even worse off than was being reported, their own home in Chanco was undamaged and the place they have on the coast between Chanco and Constitucion on a bluff overlooking the fishing village of Loanco was miraculously also undamaged. But they were struggling with uncertain power and water supplies, getting their wood processing operation going while working with the Red Cross in Chanco delivering relief supplies to victims. My friend and often traveling partner in Chile, Dave Flickinger, had returned from his fishing trip to southern Argentina, and had moved his temporary base of operations from Ron Bloom’s house in Valparaiso to our apartment in Santiago. Ximena was again having some back problems so would not be traveling anywhere soon, so Flick and I decided that it was more important for us to join Vero and Joaco in Chanco on Thursday, Feb. 11, than to stay in Santiago to watch the Presidential inauguration events on television.
The trip to Chanco from Santiago takes about 5 to 6 hours, mostly down the Pan-American Highway, but the final stage across the dry, rolling hills of Maule. We left about 10 am so we would arrive in the late afternoon in Chanco as Joaquin and Vero would be wrapping up their work at the sawmill and could accompany us to their coast home near Loanco. We filled the car with basic survival goods: bottled water, fresh vegetables and fruit, frozen chicken and sausage (we were planning several “asados” of course) a good supply of wine and bottles of prepared pisco sours, and a 24-roll package of toilet tissue. All essentials from our point of view.
We left Santiago going south along the Pan-American Highway, and noted with relief that the few problem areas in the first 50 kilometers where there where two bridges out were now operating quite nicely with well-organized detours. We were listening to the Pinera inauguration events on the radio, and were really enjoying the ride. There was very little traffic and it was a lovely warm sunny day. Flick and I both seem to energize when we are in the midst of large expanses of vineyards full of ripe red and white grapes, and the Maipo Valley south of Santiago is replete with some of the best of these vineyards. So, we were relaxed and off on our mission. As we stopped to buy a crate of tomatoes along the road, near the small town of Rengo, something very strange began to happen. The other drivers began to slow down and pull off the road. We noticed but didn’t connect the dots. We did, however, immediately pull over ourselves to buy the tomatoes, and were surprised by the vendor who was waving his hands and yelling as we got out of the car. He was trying to tell us that there had been a big “replica”, but since the tomatoes and sacks of potatoes he was selling seemed not to have fallen or shifted, we sort of discounted his concern, paid the excited man for the tomatoes, and got right back on the road. About a minute later, another replica hit hard, and this one shook the car and moved us back and forth on the road. Again, everyone was pulling over, and this time so did we. The radio began to announce that the epicenter of these very large quakes was RENGO, right where we sat! And then there was a third one. All in the matter of about 5 minutes. Cell phones were not working, so I could not reach Ximena (again, you might say….when will this guy learn!).
We contemplated turning back to Santiago, but since we were close to Curico, Flick’s Peace Corps site 40 years ago, we went on and stopped at the Cecinas Soler roadside restaurant where their famous pork products are sold. We sat down and had something to eat, and as we did, a couple smaller aftershocks occurred, rattling windows and rearranging furniture. I was still trying to reach Ximena to find out if she was OK and if I needed to return to Santiago, because a large quake in Santiago was being reported. As we left the restaurant, to get back on the highway, we noticed there was a long backup of cars and trucks on the highway, so we snuck through Curico and drove out the south end of town to another entrance to the Pan-American Highway. Finally on our way again, we received a text message from Joaquin in Chanco to the effect that we should “drive carefully over bridges due to recent replicas”. We did.
Ximena and I finally talked, and she informed me she was heading towards her mother’s apartment to spend the next few days, since hers is only on the second floor and ours is on the 8th!!! It does make a big difference in a quake, and she had decided she was “getting lower” for awhile. Flick and I drove on to Chanco, found Joaquin and Veronica at the sawmill and drove through the very sad scene in Chanco to their house (wood construction, not adobe) standing on a bluff overlooking Loanco. We took just a cursory look at Chanco as we went through town, because it was getting dark and we planned to come back the next day. We did notice, however, that about half the adobe homes along our route were destroyed. The village plaza was full of men, women, children, and dogs milling around, still not sure about going inside any structure with a roof and walls, even if they had one.
As we drove down the dirt path from the main road to Vero and Joaco’s house, we came to a small rise where you can look down below at the small fishing village of Loanco, and what we saw was about as sad a scene as I have ever seen. This is a village of about 15 or so families, all fishermen and all poor, and a place where groups of young adults and families come in the summer to camp, swim, fish, and enjoy fantastic seafood in the two small rustic restaurants in town. Usually, there are colorful fishing boats pulled up on the shore, waiting to go out early the next morning. But what we saw was complete devastation, boats almost all gone and those that were still there smashed and pushed back up the side of the hill. All the houses along the water were gone, and those further up the hill either damaged or gone. At the top of the hill a few houses remained standing, and a bit of smoke was rising from the chimneys of those houses and from several bonfires along the beach where people were burning the destroyed remains of their homes and belongings. Needless to say, we were shaken.
Chanco is in an area of rural Chile where forest plantations are increasingly replacing rain fed agriculture of beans, corn, and extensive animal grazing. Recently, however, they discovered that strawberries grow well there, and they have several large “frutillares” that produce super sweet strawberries for export, coincidentally this time of year. We had stopped at a small stand along the way to buy a flat of strawberries, so as soon as we arrived at the house we made a huge batch of “borgona”, dry red wine with sliced strawberries. Cooled with a bit of ice and sweetened with a bit of sugar, this smooth drink is similar to Spanish sangria but simpler, more straightforward, more Chilean. Joaco quickly made a fire with eucalyptus charcoal in his crude patio grill, and we grilled a large set of “merquen” rubbed pork ribs we had purchased at the Soler store in Curico, and while it grilled, we got stewed. Why not. “Replicas” happen. We retired late, numbed by what we had seen all day, especially Loanco, silent below on water’s edge, and by several pitchers of “borgona”.
Written on March 20, 2010, in Santiago,Chile.