EARTHQUAKE RECOVERY IN CURANIPE, PELLUHUE, AND CAUQUENES
We awoke March 13 (Saturday, market day in Cauquenes), and made our plan that Flick and I would visit Curanipe and Pelluhue in the morning, pass by the sawmill in Chanco to get Joaco and Vero around mid-day, and go to Cauquenes to have lunch in the new enclosed central market, visit one of Joaco’s sisters who is married to a winemaker, and finally to check on the brother of our friend Astrid Semler, who was injured in the tsunami in Pelluhue and recovering in the Cauquenes hospital. But first, we drove into Loanco and delivered the “epicenter” tomatoes we had bought in Rengo on our trip down, and some frozen chickens we had also brought to Dago’s wife Maria to distribute amongst the folks there. Dago and Maria brought us up to date on their rebuilding plans; still not very clear. It sounded like “smart” and “stubborn” are still negotiating.
Pelluhue and then Curanipe are small, long, narrow towns located at the foot of a set of hills that fall abruptly down to the ocean. The shore here is rocky, the surf is rough and a destination for surfers. From Chanco, the first place you reach on the road to these two small towns is a place they call Mariscadero. It is an expanse of low, sandy land through which a waterway flows. Because of these characteristics, the artisan fishing industry of this area has settled in, with their homes, boats, and related businesses. It is low, flat, and was heavily populated, especially in the summer vacation period that was just ending on February 27. As we drove into this area, it was so very clear what had happened. Again, after the quake, the disturbed Pacific Ocean had backed itself up a bit, and then surged (or in Dago’s term, “swelled”) into the lowest area it could find, Mariscadero. It was harder for residents of Mariscadero to get to high ground, for they had further to go. Some did, but many did not. Mariscadero was left with almost no structure standing. It is a little hard to explain, but looked like pictures I have seen of the path of tornadoes in Oklahoma, or bad hurricanes in southern Florida. Only difference is these folks had only about 20-30 minutes, at 3:30 AM, after an 8.8 earthquake, to gather their kids, their documents, and get to high ground, before the Pacific stole their town.
On our way in, we kept driving, not knowing if we could or should stop to take a closer look. The road for the most part was cleared of the debris, but there were very few people around, and the few that were there were mostly staring onto piles of rubble, searching for precious personal items, weighing their fate. There were some military units helping to direct traffic (there was not much), and clear bridges. We drove on to Pelluhue, where I first checked the small establishment Ximena’s brother, Claudio, operates there in the summer, and where he and his family were the night of the quake. Their place is right on the central plaza in Pelluhue, strong enough to resist the quake and as we were quick to observe, high enough to escape the tsunami. But just below Claudio’s place they were not so lucky. As will happen in seaside vacation spots, if you don’t control building very well, eating places, small businesses, homes, and cabins for weekly rental pop up everywhere and anywhere like mushrooms. This had happened over the years in Pelluhue and Cunaripe. Started long ago as a place for the summer homes of middle class families of Cauquenes and Chillan, and vacationers from other urban areas of central Chile, these two spots had grown uncontrolled into bustling, overcrowded, hives of vacationers with their cabins, campgrounds, and all-night discos, at least during the months of January and February each year. On February 27, nature zoned Pelluhue and Curanipe (much like landslides and wildfires do in California).
More detailed description of the devastation all along the road that links Pelluhue to Curanipe, after what I have described about Loanco, Constitucion, and Chanco seems at this point to approach overkill. Lives here too were lost, mostly in the tsunami, many homes were completely destroyed leaving survivors homeless with the rainy winter approaching, businesses have completely gone, especially artisan fishing, and kilometers of roads and many bridges were ruined. Schools, health clinics, hospitals, municipal offices, prisons, and police stations were rendered useless, and will need to be rebuilt. But in Pelluhue and Curanipe the tsunami left almost total destruction along the road that links them together and with the rest of Chile.
Broad descriptions of disasters like this one often lose strength after awhile, because of the repetition, but as we walked past Claudio’s business by the plaza and down the hill a block to what was a street running along the beach, the site of a very sad personal tragedy came into view. Claudio and his wife and daughter had escaped the tsunami by getting to higher ground, and drove to Santiago immediately after the quake. But, we had heard early on after the quake that the mother of our friend Astrid, had lost her mother in the tsunami in Pelluhue. I knew where the Semler family’s cabins were built, and since it was only about 2 blocks from where we were walking, we went to see the site. Unfortunately, Astrid’s mother slept that night in a house that was in the path of the tsunami, and even though Astrid’s brother Geofrey, two of Geofrey’s sons, and a maid all tried to get her to leave the house before the water washed the house away, they failed, and she was later found without life in the street near where the house had been. Geofrey and several family members spent the rest of the night and the next day finding each other and getting to a safe place. Geofrey landed in the Cauquenes hospital with multiple injuries, and hi sister Astrid was still trying to reach Chile from her home in the US, so part of our agenda for this day included a visit to Cauquenes and the hospital.
As we left to go to Cauquenes, we noticed on a field on the edge of Mariscadero, that groups of young students were helping put together “media agua” temporary houses to be donated to the families left homeless by the tragedy. Trucks were beginning to carry away all the debris, and a graveyard for wrecked cars and trucks was beginning to form nearby. As we drove out of town towards higher ground, we were struck by a man sitting on the porch of one of the only small wooden shacks that was still standing after the quake and the tsunami. He was watching out over the few items he still had, and had placed 4 posters on the front wall of his humble home, a series that pretty much summed up the tragedy that was Mariscadero, Pelluhue, and Curanipe: the first was a blue, white, and red Chilean flag with “ARRIBA CHILE” (Up with Chile) written on it. The second poster said “ MALDITA OLA, LLEVASTE TODO LO MIO” (Damned wave, you took everything I had). The third gave way to anger “MANDE OTRA PARA LLEVAR TODOS LOS LADRONES” (Send another one to take away all the thieves!). And the last, with more optimism “GRACIAS VOLUNTARIOS POR DAR A MI Y MI FAMILIA AYUDA Y ESPERANZA” (Thank you volunteers, for giving me and my family relief and hope.). It is taking me page after page to describe this tragedy in Chile; it took this guy only 4 posters to tell it all better.
And it was only noon on this sad Saturday, so we picked up Joaco and Vero and went to Cauquenes to visit Geofrey in the hospital, which we did exactly the same time the new President Pinera also swept through with his entourage to visit. Geofrey was in good spirits but clearly not getting all the medical attention he needed for the injuries he had, especially infection, so there was talk of his transfer to a hospital in Santiago. The President’s visit was creating quite a stir, in part simply because he was there, with them, in this time of need and grief.
Back to the house overlooking Loanco, a good meal and lots of red wine helped us digest what we had seen that day. The big issues facing Chile were beginning to be defined, so with fresh images in our minds from Loanco, Constitucion, Los Pellines, Chanco, Pelluhue, Curanipe, and Cauquenes, we debated amongst ourselves the lack of early warning in tsunami-prone areas, the precarious nature of much construction in popular urban and coastal vacation areas, the huge job of repairing Chile’s essential and historical infrastructure, and the pain and agony so many Chileans are feeling for lost loved ones.
One more look at Loanco the next morning, and we returned to Santiago, for it was my mother-in-law’s 83rd birthday, and you just don’t miss that.
In spite of the enormity and expanse of the damage caused by this quake, there is abundant evidence that Chile will recover, learn, and grow from this terrible experience. The new government and a unanimous congress have already approved a special relief package to assist the poorest and hardest hit areas face their basic needs over the next few months. Roads and bridges are being repaired, traffic is flowing better, and electric and potable water is being extended to the affected areas. But, Concepcion and Constitucion are urban centers that will require special programs and may never return to the way they were before. Since February 27, there have been over 200 aftershocks over 5.0 Richter and 20 over 6.0. In isolation, any of these would have been a notable event in itself. But, even as this instability continues, there are clear signs that physically, Chile will fix itself.
Not so clear, however, is whether or not the soul of Chile can be healed. Can political Chile reconcile its ambivalence about the legitimate role of the armed forces in the provision of citizen security? Will February 27 replace September 11 (1973, not 2001) as the day Chileans remember? Is Chile to be defined by the bandits and thieves who sacked damaged stores, cars, and homes during the first hours after the quake, or by the thousands of volunteers who rushed to provide relief and comfort to the victims? Can the rebuilding effort actually result in better conditions for the poorest and most affected sectors of the population, and not just put a patch on the wound? The debate on these and many other important questions is just beginning.
Today is 40 years to the day that my relationship with this beloved Chile was cemented…Ximena and my 40th wedding anniversary. Since that day, the relationships with Ximena and Chile have grown together. Through the ups and downs, the quakes and the tsunamis, we face the future with extreme optimism, together with our wonderful children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers and other family, and all our good friends and colleagues. But, tempered by the intense experience of the last few weeks, we walk the beach with all Chileans clearly in our minds, especially Dago and Dona Maria, with one eye on the ocean waves and the other on the nearest hill.
Written on March 20, 2010, in Santiago, Chile.