One Year After; Personal Observations of Recovery in Bio Bio
“We are never satisfied with a response to a disaster, because it is, after all, a disaster”.*
Driving down the Pan-American highway across the Maipo Valley, as you leave the snarl and smog-producing Santiago traffic, you can’t help but feel the tension release from the back of our neck, your sinuses begin to clear, and your mind begin to focus on browning pastures, yellowing Alamo lined country roads, and verdant fruit-laden vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see until they reach the slopes of the now-covered Andes Mountains to the East and the lower coastal range to the west. Gerry, who is traveling with me on this trip, was my boss when I was part of the team directing the Peace Corps in Chile in the late 1970s. He and I got along quite well then, and still have a close relationship for several reasons, not least of which are that we both have Chilean wives, we both enjoy an occasional cigar while people-watching on the streets of Santiago (or any other place, for that matter), and we both spend inordinate amounts of time searching for the perfect meal and the perfect glass of wine (The search is complicated by the requirement that they have to be reasonably priced.). We were going to spend three days touring the coastal area of Chile most affected by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, but on this day as we continued past the Maipo River Valley through the Cachapoal Valley and into the Colchagua Valley we diverted our attention momentarily to the incredible progress the Chilean wine industry has made, especially in the last twenty years, and especially in these valleys we were driving through. As we passed the sign indicating the turnoff to Casa Silva Vineyards, near San Fernando, we agreed to stop for a visit on our return in two days to Santiago.
We continued south, through the Maule Valley, one of the most traditional wine producing areas of Chile, and into the Itata Valley where we turned west, bypassing Chillan, to drive to Concepcion. The drive from Chillan to Concepcion brought back unsettling memories of the morning I left Concepcion, right after the quake, in a successful attempt to reach Ximena and her mother who were up in the foothills of the Andes enjoying the hot springs at the Panimavida resort. On this day, though, there were very few signs of earthquake damage along this road as we approached Concepcion, but I still recall vividly how difficult it had been to pass along this road only a year earlier, avoiding meter-wide cracks in the pavement, collapsed bridges, and electric lines and trees down across the road. It was all complicated by the fact that there was no cell phone communication or gas pumps operating for cars, trucks and busses.
As we entered greater Concepcion, past the airport and the turnoff to Talcahuano, and as we entered the city center, the remnants of disaster I expected to see were not as obvious or visible. Concepcion was teeming with people, mostly students because Concepcion is a major university center.
We wanted to get to Arauco that afternoon, at least an hour drive further south of Concepcion along the coast, but we took a few minutes to stop by the Alonso de Ercilla Hotel where I spent the night of the earthquake a year before. Surprisingly to me, it is operating as if nothing had happened. I introduced myself, and quickly related to the clerk at the counter that I had been there the night of the earthquake, and year earlier. He told me the night clerk, who would have been on the job that night (and who helped me rescue my car from beneath the adobe wall that had fallen on it) But we moved on instead of waiting, so I will have to return another day to this hotel to find out what eventually happened to everyone I spent a few anxious hours with in the lobby of the hotel that morning in Concepcion. There were still buildings throughout the city with signs of damage, and some empty lots where obviously there had been buildings before, now demolished and taken away; but I found the city of Concepcion, on the surface, pretty normal. That is not how I remember it that early morning a year ago as I walked the dark streets, hearing the anguished cries of frightened and injured people, the central plaza filled with groups of people in shock, and the smoke filled sky from the fires around town.
I have not visited Talcahuano, the port city that suffered extensively from the tsunami, so I have no first hand observations to make about that. Talcahuano presents an important chapter in the tsunami story, due to its closeness to the epicenter of the earthquake and because it is the site of much of the Chilean navy’s installations and ships. Not knowing about the recovery of Talcahuano is a shortcoming I plan to address soon, on a future trip into the Bio Bio region.
Arauco (where we visited Naya, the widow of my old friend Enrique) showed no signs of the earthquake or the tsunami, and we were told very little damage had occurred there, except some damage to the beach area. Gerry and I decided to drive further out the coast road towards Punta lavapie, where Enrique had taken me in 1967 for my first encounter with the large Chilean mussels named “cholgas”. We only got as far as Tubul (or Tuvul), a small fishing village on the Bahia de Llico, located slightly up an “estero” and reachable only by crossing two low bridges. As we crossed these one-lane bridges we realized they were new, and possibly only temporary bridges. We passed an earie spot on the outskirts of town where the villagers had placed an old fishing boat, surrounded by hundreds of white crosses in memory of past deaths.
Gerry and I thought maybe they were deaths from the tsunami, because as we looked ahead at the village of Tubul, it was obvious the town had been essentially wiped out by the tsunami.
It was easy to imagine how the rising waters had washed up the “estero”, over the shallow beach where the fishing boats were either anchored or beached, destroyed the bridges and obliterated much of the town. It was still pretty bad a year after, so we were reticent to explore very closely. However, we noticed there were a dozen or so boats out along the shore, out at the mouth of the “estero”, unloading something onto the shore and then into refrigerated trucks. We parked the car and walked down to where the activity was.
I spoke with a young man who was receiving and weighing large bags of shellfish from the boats. He explained that the boats gather a round clam-like mollusk that I think he called a “diquibe”, and an elongated one, that projects a long rubbery tube, they call “navahuelas”, shaped like a straight razor as the name suggests. Since this visit, while writing this blog, I have been trying to verify the name of the clams, and no one I have consulted with has ever heard the name “diquibe”, so while I will keep consulting about this, I will call them “almejas”, the most common term in Chile for clams, and assume the young man I spoke with either had a speech impediment, or he was pulling my leg, in which case he and his buddies are probably still laughing at the “gringo” who is probably out looking for “the nonexistent “diquibe”.
Anyway, They load these sacks of shellfish into trucks and take them, according to this young man, to the island of Chiloe where they are processed by large seafood operations and shipped to Japan, China, and other Pacific rim seafood-consuming countries. The day we were there they had a very good catch. However, the young man sadly described how the town was still reeling from the devastation, with many homes still only patched together and life proceeding at a precarious pace. I could not help think that the bridge, of course, had to be rebuilt immediately to free the town of the isolation it suffered after the tsunami washed out the bridges. The companies that buy this valuable seafood from the poor fishing families who reside in Tuvul surely pressured the government agencies to rebuild the bridges so they can get their trucks in and the seafood out. But I wonder how much pressure is being applied now to get basic services back to the town and help rebuild the fishermen’s homes in a safe place.
We drove back to Arauco, to a small, comfortable hotel where we spent the night, but not before searching out the only restaurant we thought could provide us with the meal we deserved after such a long and eventful day; The El Vergel Restaurant. We were easily talked into a steaming plate of “cazuela de vacuno”, beef soup-like stew that happens to be an iconic Chilean comfort food I love as do most people who have ever experienced this dish on a cold, rainy day in southern Chile. I never embark upon a trip like this without a good supply of wine and bottled mineral water in the trunk of the car (sort of an “emergency” kit). So I took out a bottle of Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet sauvignon from their Apalta vineyard, paid the owner of the El Vergel restaurant a $2.00 corkage fee, and Gerry and I enjoyed what is one of the most pleasurable meals you can get south of the equator.
The next day we had promised ourselves we would try to see the collapsed apartment building in Concepcion, which sat on the rim of the Bio Bio River until February 27, 2010, when it split in two and, filled with its terrified residents, toppled over in the earthquake. As we crossed the bridge into Concepcion, we luckily discovered a gas station situated right next to that building, so we stopped, got out and took a good close look.
It is truly frightening to imagine what it must have been like inside this building as it fell. Lawsuits have been filed, and in the meantime, this ugly emblem of the 2010 earthquake adorns most publications and films about the disaster. And it just sits there, shadowed by two much taller towers that did not fail that day and which taunt their fallen neighbor as the powers that be, and the courts, determine who will take the blame for the deaths and financial loss from the “Alto Rio” apartment building.
I knew the next place we were to visit, Dichato, would arouse deep emotions, and it did. This coastal vacation town was among the most devastated towns in the 2010 tsunami. Probably because of the formation of the coast and the ocean floor at that point, and the location of the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, Dichato was wiped out, at least an area of four blocks deep and ten to twelve blocks long of houses, and a neighboring fishing village simply vanished.
I still wonder what I might have experienced if, as originally planned, I had spent the night of the quake in that town, especially because I had been tempted to search for a small cabin right on the street that borders the beach, with the best view of the water. As Gerry and I drove the length of this street, back and forth a couple of times, I had a haunting vision of the woman whom I saw that day, as I passed, who I thought might rent me one of the cabins she obviously had available. I can’t help but wonder where she was that fateful morning, what happened to her, did she get out, did she get out and then come back too soon, only to be swept away by the second or third rush of high water that killed those unfortunate folks who thought the danger had passed.
I tried to identify the place where she had been standing that day when I passed, but only remnants of a few of the stone walls remain, making it virtually impossible for me to identify that specific place along that road now.
Gerry had noticed a sign for the “Don Eduardo” restaurant, and we needed a break, so we drove down a dirt road which bordered the shore noticeably several meters above the level of the water. We wanted to have a coffee and, if possible, talk to someone about what had been going on in Dichato over the past year. “Don Eduardo’s” was a lovely, rustic seaside place like so many along the Chilean coast. A place we could have sat for hours if we had more time. Operated by Ricardo and his wife (we think), Ricardo explained to us how the morning of the earthquake, he was in charge of one of two restaurants (he referred to them as “boites”, suggesting more drinking than eating), owned by the same person who now owns Don Eduardo’s restaurant. The “Boite” was filled with young revelers when the quake hit, but they all immediately left the place and ran uphill to a safe place. According to Ricardo, everyone who lives in Dichato knows that’s what you do with a quake the size of the 8.8 one that hit that night.
He remembers that after awhile, hearing radio reports that the Intendente in Concepcion and the President in Santiago had declared that the threat of a tsunami had passed, some in their group went back down into town to retrieve their personal things, but Ricardo and most of the others did not return to the town. The unfortunate ones who did return back down to sea level were caught in another wave of high water, and many perished, including one of Ricardo’s friends and daughter. It is this specific case of erroneous warnings and unfortunate consequent deaths that continues to haunt the top levels of the Bachelet administration and is the basis of serious controversy and complicated lawsuits.
Ricardo, very anxious to tell his story, explained that all the properties within 20 meters of the retaining wall at the upper edge of the beach all along Dichato’s waterfront have been expropriated by the government, and will not be available for rebuilding residences.
Temporary housing was provided to everyone who was left homeless and who was willing to reside in a “media-agua” village on the top of the hill leading out of Dichato to the south, and payment has been made to those whose homes were expropriated. Construction will start soon to build new permanent homes for those who were expropriated. Ricardo and his wife and small daughter moved initially into the temporary village, but now only Ricardo is staying there. He sent his wife and daughter to Chillan to stay with relatives, due to the crowded arrangements in the temporary housing, the shared bathroom facilities with three other families, and the unsafe conditions for his young daughter. The Pinera government surely sees it advantageous to get it right in Dichato, after the terrible response in that community immediately after the quake. Dichato may end up as a valuable case study on tsunami emergency preparedness and response, with both positive and negative lessons to be learned.
While Ricardo was telling us the story of Dichato, we snacked on a couple of “empanadas fritas de mariscos” (fried seafood turnovers), which were delicious. The mixture of chopped clams, mussels, and something the Chileans call “piures” (sea squirts in English), spiced with onions and a bit of Chilean hot sauce, wrapped up in a thin layer of tasty dough, then crispy deep fried, sure hit the spot. We tried to satisfy an uneasy feeling we both had in our guts, with these “empanadas”. But, although they were delicious, it was impossible to cruise up and down the desolate streets of Dichato, and listen to Ricardo’s story, and not be left with a terribly empty feeling at the thought of what happened in that unsuspecting town the morning of February 27, 2010.
*MaryCatherine Arbour; Harvard Medical School.
Written in Leesburg, Virginia on April 30, 2011.