Monday, September 6, 2010

Reprint: The Chilean Earthquake from a First Person Perspective

This post originally appeared on Zero Hedge on the morning of February 27, less than eight hours after the Great Chilean Quake of 2010. It certainly was a “Great Quake”—the second most intense earthquake ever in Chile, after the 1960 Valdivia Earthquake, which is acknowledged to have been the greatest earthquake in recorded history. 

Hello Gringos!

I've been under the weather for the last few days. So last night I went to sleep early, around 11pm.

Around 3:15am, I suddenly woke up, even though I usually sleep straight through until the dawn. There was no obvious reason to wake up at such an odd hour. Claire, my dog, was sound asleep. Out my window on the 15th floor of my building, all the buildings across from the Los Leones golf course were quiet.

But I was wide awake.

So finally, I decided to make the best of it—I got my laptop and surfed the net, wide awake, reading (of all things) about what the iPad might mean to newspaper publishing—when the earthquake hit.

"Hit" makes it sound too dramatic—initially, it was a a minor tremer with a slow circular roll. The clock on my computer read 3:34am.

Now, a tremor like this is nothing unusual. Since I live on the 15th floor of my 15 storey building—and since this is Chile—I'm used to tremors. To paraphrase Linda Evangelista, I don't get out of bed for anything under a 6.0 on the Richter scale.

So at first, I didn't think much of this tremor—because that's what it was, at first: A minor tremor.

But then, it refused to peter out. I got out of bed but stayed in my room—I heard something smash down on the opposite side of my apartment—and then something else crashed, only much nearer.

The floor was moving around and around—you felt as if you were standing dead center of a swiftly spinning merry-go-round, trying to keep your balance. There was no up-and-down motion, only round-and-round.

The television started moving, as did the bed, and I could hear glass shattering from other parts of my apartment. Claire—awake finally—was whining and brushing my leg—but I couldn't quite stay on my feet, bouncing off the edge of my bed to my feet, then losing my balance and falling back down again, then to my feet again.

From the living room of my apartment, I could hear furniture crashing, and from the kitchen, cutlery clattered about like a pocketful of coins jangled by an impatient gambler.

I'd left my room dark when I'd started surfing the net—so I had a clear view out my picture window when all of a sudden, all the street lights of the city snapped off all at once, while my building kept on whirling. 

In the dark across the city, I could see the snap and pop of white light—like lightning coming out of the city, and up into the sky. It was the electrical transformers, shorting out as they were shaken like cascabels by the earthquake. 

It lasted about 90 seconds. To me, it felt somewhat less than the '85 quake—which happened exactly 25 years ago this coming March 3. That one was actually two, back to back, the first a 7.4, the second two minutes later a 7.7.

News reports are saying that it was an 8.8 on the Richter scale—about 50 times stronger than the Haiti quake, which was only a 7.9. The epicenter was 340 km to the south-east of Santiago. So if I had to guess, I'd say we in Santiago got hit with a 7.7 on the Richter. 
[Subsequent reports confirmed it had been an 8.8 at the epicenter, and around an 8.2 in Santiago. Also, the Chilean earthquake was roughly a thousand times more powerful than the Haiti eartquake, as measured by moment Newtons. Unfortunately, 230,000 died in Haiti. In Chile, approximately 489 people died, mostly due to the tsunami that hit the coast as a consequence of the earthquake.]

I was looking out the picture window of my bedroom, and watched all the buildings lining the other side of the golf course. The Los Leones golf course is in the middle of Vitacura and Las Condes—it's like Santiago's Central Park, with high-end apartment buildings lining it on all sides.

The tall buildings across the golf course were swaying from side to side, just like wheat does with a gentle breeze.

Once it stopped, I started making an assesment—as you can imagine, all my books fell, as did the bookcases. The refrigerator had moved about a foot and a half. Et cetera, boring et cetera—it looked like a band of hooligans had tossed my apartment.

A lot of the plaster and stucco on the walls cracked; in a few places, it came off altogether. But all the structural walls seemed okay. 

Outside the apartment, I could hear seemingly every car in the city, honking and hooting, sirens blaring on and on, as if they had all suddenly gone berserk: Their alarms, I realized, knowing that most of them were set off by their motion detectors. 

My cell phone suddenly rang in my apartment—but I couldn't find it. I could hear it ring in the kitchen, but curiously, it sounded muffled. Hours later, I discovered that my cell phone fell off a counter in my kitchen, into an open drawer—and then that drawer closed.

My living room is rectangular, with the long side facing the golf course—that side is made up of three enormous sliding glass windows—3 by 3 meters. The windows are always closed when I go to sleep—with the latch on. But somehow, these three enormous windows had come unlocked, and had slid around at random.

In my kitchen, from a cupboard over the counter, a box of salt fell out, fell on the counter, and naturally spilt stall—yet when I found the box, it was upright. The pile of spilt salt was right next to the box—like a murder victim—yet the red-and-white salt box stood there, faking innocence, like a kid saying "I didn't do that!"

All of those bottles of fancy vinegars and olive oils that people gave me as housewarming gifts, but which I never used? Shattered, one and all—the kitchen smells as if I were putting together a really interesting salad.

Once I'd ascertained the extent of the damages, I got dressed, packed a few important things—laptop, passport, checkbook, cigarettes—and headed out.

Down the service stairwell I went. My building is rather unusual—there is one apartment per floor, and the main elevator door opens directly into the apartment. A lot of the tennants are older people, so I knocked on the doors of a few people, to make sure they were okay. They were, thankfully.

When I got to the eighth floor, there was a flood of water—the main line had ruptured, and was spilling water down the stairwell like a cascade. Somehow, I got all wet, as I made my way down.

On the ground floor, a few tennants and the night man were milling about. Because Chile has had so many earthquakes, people are prepared. My building had a detailed protocol—so the gas for the building had been cut, as had the water (the deluge was just the run-off already in the pipes), the back-up electrical system was working, and the elevators had been shut down. I called my mom from a landline—she and Bob were fine, as were my sister and my brother-in-law and neice and nephew.

So since there was nothing, really, to do, I walked with Claire to my mom's, about a mile away, around the corner from the golf course. She and Bob were outside, in the patio of their building. Claire somehow found a tennis ball, so at her insistence, we wound up playing penalty-kicker-and-the-canine-goalie, which is her absolutely favorite game.

Just before dawn, the lights came back on. The cell network wors intermitently, mostly because everyone's calling everyone else.

It's just before 11:00 am as I write this back on the 15th floor of my apartment. I plan on nominating the man who invented the elevator for sainthood—14 flights of stairs is no fun.

—there's another aftershock going on.

What I find most interesting is, I woke up a good 20 minutes before the earthquake—I mean, wide-eyed, won't-be-sleeping-again-tonight awake.

But my dog only woke up half-way through the quake.

I'm sure that means something—I have no idea what.

In Santiago, everything is calm. ConcepciĆ³n has really suffered, but from the news reports, they seem to be okay. 
Post-script: The water was off in my apartment for less than twelve hours. A section of pipe of the mainline had broken, but it was quickly repaired. However, the elevators weren’t repaired for something like a week—so leaving my apartment had to be planned like a military campaign, because of the fifteen flights of stairs I had to descend, and then climb back up. 

Out of a city of several millions, only three buildings collapsed—and they collapsed because their builders had violated construction codes. These individuals and companies all eventually faced civil and criminal charges. 

Initially, there was looting, especially in ConcepciĆ³n. Chile was prepared—no one lacked for food or water in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. This “looting” was really just pillaging by criminal elements who were taking advantage of the situation. The outgoing President, Michelle Bachelet, refused to deploy troops to maintain public order for political reasons. But three days after the earthquake, under enormous pressure from all sectors of Chilean society, she finally acceded. Looting stopped almost immediately. 

Chile recovered very quickly from the earthquake—it was a great unifying event. 

1 comment:

  1. There is something strange with the dogs. As live in non seismic area, I had a experience with somehow man- made quake. December the 4th of 1999 great crane of Gdynia Shipyard (weight of few thousands tons) was thorn down by the wind. I lived with the parents abt 2 km of it. All the man (4 persons) woked up and dog slept well. It was strange, but I see now, not unusual.


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