EARTHQUAKE RECOVERY IN LOANCO, CONSTITUCION, AND CHANCO
On February 12th, we awoke to a beautiful sunny day, with three destinations on our agenda: Loanco, Constitucion and Chanco. To get to Loanco from Joaco and Vero’s house, you can drive over the hill on a dirt road, but my preferred route is to walk down through a small planting of pine trees, across the sand flat behind the dunes, over the dunes, and down the beach to the village. About 2 kilometers in all. I had done this walk many times during my prior visits, because it is an exhilarating site and in the village I could get good seafood and watch the fishing activity. But it was very different this time, right from the start. I had seen no boats go out early to fish, and as we walked across the sand flat, it was obvious water had risen over the dunes and onto the flat that stretches up to the base of the small pine plantings Joaco put in to stabilize the dunes below his house. His house stands on a firm rocky ledge about 35 meters above sea level. The tsunami here was probably no greater than 12 to 15 meters, if that. So you have to figure that for the water to reach their house, it would have probably also have reached well inland, up river valleys, over much of Chile. But that fact still doesn’t seem to reassure you enough, when you are walking the same ground that had been covered with water just days before. Besides, as we crossed over the dunes, we walked into what can only be described as a beach trash yard. Over the extent of the beach the ocean was washing up everything it had taken from the village several days before.
We had been told that no one from Loanco died in the quake or the tsunami. They all fled at the first indication of trouble and waited back on the main road for a couple of hours until they were sure any threat of tsunami had passed. So while they saved themselves because they were smart and didn’t wait for anyone else to tell them what to do, their story is still very special and sad. What they told us is that they stood way back by the main road, where they could see the ocean but not the village, which was behind a bluff. They watched for what they thought would be a big wave, or waves. And they saw none. After a couple of hours and as daylight arrived, they thought it was safe to return to their village and homes and were pretty sure they had escaped destruction. They had not seen a big wave; because there was not any wave. As one man told me, the ocean just “se hincho”, which means “swelled up” in Spanish. No wave, the ocean just retreated a bit, then grew and grew and advanced over the first and second row of houses, and then, as it receded, it took everything with it; houses, boats, stores, tractors, cars….hopes and dreams.
We walked along the beach to town, kicking debris and collecting up small pieces of things that were interesting; a piece of a sign, half an oar with the owners name painted on the paddle, things like that. In town, a couple of people were cleaning debris into piles to be burned, but the place was almost desolate. I walked up the beach and into the skeleton of the restaurant (Dago’s) where I used to go for my late morning “vaina” (acceptable pre-lunch drink in rural Chile), raw sea urchins, steamed mussels and clams, seafood empanadas, and fried fresh fish. Only a couple of walls still stood on this cement building.
Dago’s store next door was also completely washed away, with everything inside. Dago had seen us looking over his place, so he walked down the dirt street from a house up the hill, where he and 3 other families are living now, to talk with us. Saddened but not defeated, he swears he will rebuild his restaurant and store in the same spot, and all he asks of the local officials is that they build a storm wall between him and the beach to hold back the water next time.
We have spoken since to his wife, Dona Maria, who as is often the case, may have a clearer view of what is right than her husband; and she is the cook. They most likely will find a place on higher ground to rebuild “Dago’s”. But maybe not. Stubborn often overrules wise. We had to move on, but it was hard to leave Loanco. Most of the folks were somewhere else tending to their immediate needs, which they said was what they did most mornings. But they join up in the afternoon to work together to clean up the town. We walked back across the beach (strange how you can walk along a beach with your left eye wearily looking at the ocean and your right eye nervously focused on the closest hill) to get our car at Vero’s house, and drive to Constitucion.
Driving up the coastal road from Chanco to Constitucion takes you through another small fishing village named “Los Pellines”. We had heard that it suffered great damage, and it did. But the way it happened was somewhat special…bad special. The village had their homes right on the rocky edge of the ocean, clustered around the outlet of a stream. The road goes right by the homes, crossing a small bridge built over the river. The tsunami “swelled up” right through the village, following the lowest land, and took everything, boats, houses and all, over the road and up the stream, leaving everything totally destroyed and piled up well above the road. We drove through, without stopping, but noticed a couple of families beginning to rebuild their homes right in the same spot. Where else?
Constitucion is a fairly large coastal town 35 kilometers north of Chanco, situated right on the ocean at the mouth of the Maule River. This used to be a wonderful beach vacation town, where Chileans from Talca and Curico spent their summers. It also happens to have been the Peace Corps site of one of the volunteers in our group, and is very close to where my traveling partner Flick was based as a PC volunteer. In fact, he met his wife (now ex) on this beach, and many young men of our PC group spent time in this once happy town of rocky beaches, river swimming, cheap seafood restaurants overlooking the beach, and music, drinking and dancing at night with the wide-eyed attractive Chilean women. Constitucion was a destination place for us and many others in the late 1970s, until a huge pulp mill was built right on the water next to the best beach, filling the town with the smell of sulfite (some say money), and turning it into a dumpy industrial-like town, dreary and sad compared to its earlier state, but still filled with wonderfully industrious and welcoming people. Most of the downtown area is still adobe construction, and the quake of Feb 27 destroyed most of the older buildings and along with them many of the newer ones. To make things worse, the tsunami, swelling and searching for the lowest place of least resistance, worked its way up the river, alongside the city, covering a small island where campers were unable to escape and swept into Constitucion from the side all the way to the central Plaza. We drove into town on the main street, and went all the way to the pulp mill, now flooded, injured, and silent, but threatening to again belch putrid smoke over the city by the end of March (and provide much needed jobs to workers who live in Constitucion). We could not drive down the coastal road where all the restaurants were, and chose not to walk there, because the restaurants are all gone and the remains are blocking the road. We were told that the set of cute bungalows a couple of miles down that road, past the restaurants, where I had stayed on an earlier trip though this area two years ago, had been completely washed out to sea.
We filled up the gas tank at a station right across from the CELCO pulp mill (now owned by Celulosa Arauco), and while we were waiting the attendant pointed to a three-story apartment building up the hill behind the station where he lives. I could only see two stories, which he explained to me was because the first floor collapsed in the quake and the top two stories fell into it, killing everyone as they slept. Another time I might not have believed him, but now I did. We then drove into the center of town, through total destruction, weaving between piles of adobe walls fallen into the street, and parked at the central plaza. It was a mob scene, but a quiet, morose one. Eating tents were set up to provide lunch and dinner to anyone who needed it. People were milling around and these folks were in a trance. I could not believe what I was seeing. To top it off, there were several tents set up with animal clinics, fed by long lines of people with their dogs and cats, having them checked, vaccinated, neutered, fixed up, and comforted. A young woman was trying to get the folks milling around in the plaza to do dance aerobics to a blaring boom box. It was bizarre. We just walked amongst the rubble and looked at the people, who surely have very little reason, other than that they are alive, to have hope for the future. It was a scene that makes you cry, and for a bit I did. We were bummed out by it all, and decided to leave. We still had to go to Chanco.
Chanco is one of the most classic rural towns in the Maule Province. One main street goes through town, past one and two-story adobe homes, many of which still open to large courtyards where large extended families live, have their small businesses, and even keep livestock. The main street passes on one side of the central plaza, by the bus station, newsstand, bar, local municipality buildings, and on to the important Catholic church where every year they celebrate long and intensely the Virgin de la Candelaria, and out of town on the other side towards Cauquenes, Pelluhue, and Cunaripe. We parked and walked around town a bit. By now we had seen so much damage and misery we were beginning to wonder if these folks would ever pull out of this tragedy. But in Chanco, we saw a spirit, drive and sense of community we had not seen up to then in other localities. Many of the damaged adobe homes had been already razed and the sites cleared of debris, or at least they were in the process of doing that. Men and boys were up on the roofs, pushing old ceramic tiles and broken beams off into the street below, to either save some of the material for the rebuilding process, or safely demolish the whole building. A team of structure inspectors had been through Chanco, and each structure had the universal “X” spray-painted on the wall, where the status of that place was noted in numbers (for dead, injured, or live inhabitants; pets; etc), and in words like “inhabitable”, “uninhabitable”, “demolish”. Each “X” tells a story, usually sad but sometimes optimistic (“gone to Cauquenes to stay with daughter”). The site where the church used to be was completely vacant. The first thing these folks did was take away their totally destroyed church, to be ready to rebuild when they could figure out how. We talked to a neighbor who told us very proudly that they had found all the statues of the virgin and other saints, and they were well protected to be placed again in their new church.
Some organized relief efforts were under way (after all, this was almost 2 weeks after the big quake), but these folks in Chanco seemed to be facing up to their fate and the work ahead pretty much with their own initiative, energy, and resources. They were using the “minga” system seen in many more traditional Latin American cultures (and in some in the US like the Amish), whereby they work in groups, rebuilding house after house together to take advantage of varied skills, availability of time, and the satisfaction that comes from working and progressing together. But we also saw that the first of the emergency relief wooden one-room structures called a “media agua” were being put together and placed on the cleared sites of homes so families would have a roof over their heads in the rapidly approaching colder, rainier winter, and give them time to rebuild their permanent structure. So we left Chanco a bit more optimistic, and decided that our visits to Pelluhue and Cunaripe (places we knew were in terrible shape, where the tsunami had done so much damage) could wait until the next day. We returned to Joaco and Vero’s house on the hill overlooking Loanco, and did our part, again, to help keep the Chilean wine industry afloat. We slept pretty well, with our minds focused more on the remarkable people of Chanco than on the hopeless situation of Loanco, Los Pellines, and Constitucion.
Written on March 20, 2010, in Santiago, Chile.