So here it is, my long-overdue post-earthquake blog entry.
For those of you who for some bizarre reason never watch television or read a newspaper or otherwise have contact with the world, or for posterity if they ever read this (which is kind of cool to think about), on February 27 at 3:34 a.m. Saturday morning, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit central Chile. A few of the numerous affected cities are Concepción, Constitución, Iloca, and Talca, my city. I was in Santiago outside of a disco with a bunch of exchange friends when the earthquake actually hit. We hadn't gone in yet because they wanted to charge us 5,000 pesos and so a couple people in our group were trying to get them to give us a discount for being foreign. Ha! So when it started to quake we all thought jee the music is really strong... well that assumption lasted about 5 seconds until the ground started rumbling, tiles started falling from the wall of the building behind us, and people started to run screaming through the door of the disco. Before the lights cut out I remember seeing the umbrellas of the patio tables across the courtyard whipping back and forth and the glass of the balcony railing rippling like it was going to shatter. I grabbed Andrew's and Billy's hands, who were standing on either side of me, and we just stood there until it was over. All of our group stayed where they were except Emily and Connor, who ran down to the ground floor. It was chaos for a couple minutes until we managed to get our whole group together and meet up with Emily and Connor. Everything closed right away and everyone else left. It was just our group sitting on the sidewalk. Public transportation shut down of course so we had no way to get back home, which didn't really bother us much- exchange students always find a way to entertain themselves. Now it is so strange to think that we were goofing off on the sidewalk at the same moment that the tsunami was hitting the coast.
We waited until sunrise, then went looking for a way to get back home. A few buses were running so our group dispersed and Emily, Andrew, and I were able to hitch a ride back to his house as per the original plan. I managed to talk with my host mom on the phone long enough to know that my family in Talca was ok though in general communication was a mess. But what really grabs my attention when looking back at those first hours after the earthquake is my overwhelming ignorance. I had never been in anything close to an earthquake before- I'm from Ohio, by God. I didn't know to worry that some people might not be ok, I didn't know to wonder about an epicenter somewhere else in Chile, and I certainly didn't know to think about the possibility of a tsunami.
As dramatic as it sounds the earthquake wasn't really that scary for me. In the moment, yeah of course, but I never thought I was going to die and afterwards we calmed down, saw that nothing really happened where we were, and therefore most of us just assumed that the rest of Chile must be fine too. It was a different story in Talca, being a lot closer to the epicenter. I believe in Santiago the earthquake was a magnitude 8. In Talca it was 8.5 and at the epicenter near Concepción it was 8.8. My host sister Camila woke up first and ran into her parent's bedroom- she had to scream at them to get out over the noise of the quake. They could see the pavement moving up and down like ocean waves and the ground was moving so much they couldn't get a firm footing outside.
There wasn't running water at Andrew's house but they had electricity so we could watch the news, the first idea we had of how serious things actually were. They were showing footage of the airport with the connecting walkways all collapsed and a video of Obama pledging the U.S.'s support in the crisis. We spent the day sleeping (Emily and I squashed into Andrew's bed haha), watching the news, and running outside whenever there was a particularly strong aftershock. Jorge, Marisa, and Fran (my first host family and now Emily's family) had been on vacation in Pichidangui, north of Santiago, so they drove down to take us all back to Talca. The closer we got to Talca, the more destroyed everything looked. A lot of the pedestrian bridges over the highway collapsed and the actual highway was damaged in a lot of places, so the normally 3-hour trip to Talca from Santiago took more than 5 hours. At one point it took us an hour and a half to detour a 10-kilometer stretch of damaged highway. We stopped in Rancagua to buy bread because from what Marisa and Jorge had heard, Talca was bad enough that we didn't know if we would be able to buy food.
We got into the city as it was getting dark and drove directly to my house to drop me off, so I couldn't really see what kind of shape the city was in. I live on a culdesac and as we entered you could see all the cars in the middle of the rotunda- no one wanted to sleep in their houses because of the aftershocks. Camila and Simon slept in the back of one of the cars, and Soledad (my host mom) and I in the other. Patricio said to hell with it, he wanted a good nights sleep, and slept in the house haha. I think he was probably the only one in the whole neighborhood. I tried to sleep and ended up outside the car listening to music and staring at the sky until 1 o'clock. I woke up when Soledad went inside around 7:30 in the morning. My cell phone rang a minute after- it was a representative of the U.S. embassy in Santiago calling to see if I was ok so they could inform my parents. They also asked for Emily, Chanel, and Matthew's numbers to try and reach them. Well color me impressed! Chilean Rotary hadn't even tried to contact me yet.
After we ate breakfast I was upstairs in my room picking up everything that had fallen over in the earthquake when a really big aftershock hit. Pato yelled ¨¡baja baja baja!¨ (¨get down get down get down¨) and we all ran for the door. There is a set of rickety wooden spiral stairs going up to my room and I swear that is the fastest I have ever gotten down them! I must have set some kind of record. But to be serious, that aftershock freaked me out a lot more than the initial earthquake. They feel so much worse inside- the noise! With all the nicknacks on tables shaking and the hats falling from the coatrack..aaah. I tried to run outside but Soledad grabbed me because supposedly it was safer under the front doorway than it would have been outside because of falling electrical wires.
It was hard to feel safe inside the house for a long time. In the first 48 hours, there were over 90 aftershocks. Sunday night almost everyone had gone back to sleeping inside. Camila and I were planning on sleeping together downstairs until we started saying things like ¨hm...well if we sleep in this room and there's an earthquake all those books are going to crush us...but if we sleep in this room this is going to happen¨...you get the picture. Probably not a good idea, we just fed off each other's anxiety, but the point being that we ended sleeping outside in the car again haha. However the fact that it was so dang uncomfortable and that Camila's cat peed on us effectively cured me of my fear of sleeping in the house.
Over the next few days we went around Talca to see the damage, which was shocking. The center of the city is the worst. 90% of the old buildings in Talca collapsed or have to be demolished, and to give you some idea, a whole lot of the city is old buildings. The Universidad de Talca where my host dad works got hit really hard, and my host mom's private practice was really damaged. The top three floors collapsed completely and there's a huge piece of concrete hanging by a few metal enforcements. One of the upper offices was a dentist's, so when we went there were plaster casts of teeth scattered all over the sidewalk haha. The market looks like it was bombed, same thing with all the shops on the main street, and all the old churches in Talca have to be demolished. A lot of the church towers ended up crooked or hanging off. It's strange to see an undamaged building. 90% of Talca's commerce was destroyed, which means that a lot of businesses are closed still and won't open for a long time. For the first week it was just the supermarket Jumbo open, guarded by Army dudes with machine guns because of looting. A lot of people bought in massive amounts out of panic so batteries and candles went fast since the electricity still wasn't back, and there were huge lines at all the gas stations because people were afraid the gasoline would run out.
The Saturday after the earthquake I went to Constitución with my friend Gabby and a group that had organized to collect aid for the coast. Constitución was one of the hardest-hit cities because it is pretty close to the epicenter and it got smashed by the three tsunami waves after the earthquake. The destruction was hard to take in even though I knew I was seeing it with my own eyes. I saw a house where the waves ripped almost all the exterior walls away and wedged a boat into one of the ground floor rooms. We drove over the main bridge while they were looking for bodies in the river below. There was a ship sitting in the train station. The benches by the bus station where Alexis and her mom and I sat to eat ice cream were washed away- it was incredible. But it felt really good to help. The organizers of the group had had some contacts already but mostly we just drove around and passed out food and blankets and toiletry items wherever they were needed, which was basically everywhere. The idea was to go to the smaller little communities outside of Constitución where help hadn't arrived yet. We passed out absolutely everything right down to the packs of crackers we had brought for our own snacks and got back to Talca well after the emergency military curfew. I was going to go again with Emily the next Saturday but our host parents said no because Thursday there was a huge aftershock and they worried about us being on the coast in case of another tsunami alert or if the lines of communication went down again, which happens after every big aftershock. That Thursday Chanel and I had slept over at Emily's house and the aftershock woke us up. We ran upstairs to get Fran, our host sister, but it ended up she had gone with her dad to work so we just ran outside in our pijamas. It was kind of scary because we couldn't get the door open at first. :( But honestly by now I feel like the Mary Poppins movie in the part where the whole house shakes but everyone just keeps on drinking their tea and reading the newspaper. People have calmed down a lot because a conference of international scientists confirmed that the big aftershock that was expected was the one from that Thursday, so they should get smaller from here on out. Even so, it's surreal to realize that all of a sudden you are living in the middle of a natural disaster- it's been a month, but rubble still fills the streets. Even with going to Constitución right after the quake, it took me a long time to grasp.
Life in Chile continues to be amazing. I love my host family more than ever, am making new Chilean friends, and this weekend we will leave on the Rotary trip to the north. 11 days in a bus with 20 other exchange students! I cannot think of anything more fun. I'm also looking forward to starting school when I get back. We would all have started the first of March, but because of the quake it was postponed until April 5. I honestly feel like I woke up one morning and had hardly any time left here. Little more than 3 months! When did that happen? I have this strange mix of feeling like I never want my exchange to be over and being really excited to see my friends and family. Every day is a new adventure and I can't wait to see what else my exchange has in store. See you all this summer!