One of the last things my Chilean host brother asked me as I packed up to leave Santiago after four months of studying abroad in the Chilean capital was, “Sentiste el temblor?” (“Did you feel the earthquake?”). “Cuándo?”, I responded. When did this so-called temblor occur? Apparently it had happened seconds beforehand. Part of me didn’t want to believe him, but when I got in the van to head to Santiago’s airport only minutes later, the driver of the van asked me the same exact question. On what was already a difficult day – one on which I was leaving a country that I had come to love after a semester – this only made me more frustrated. Somehow I had managed to live in an active seismic zone for a semester and had never actually experienced an earthquake that I could feel. Having tracked USGS data occasionally throughout my time in the southern hemisphere, I had apparently been in several earthquakes, but none that I could sense. Along with having seen a penguin in the wild, I had hoped to leave Chile having experienced a minor earthquake (temblor).
A temblor. Not a terremoto.
Fast forward from December 2008 to this past Saturday at 3:38AM. I was about to go to sleep when I received a message from a friend informing me that there had been a huge earthquake in Chile. Reading the BBC article, I could only think about my friends and colleagues in the country. An 8.8 on the Richter scale was no temblor. This was an all-outterremoto. I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned the location of the epicenter, about 200 miles south of Santiago. The region of Maule isn’t exactly the most densely populated part of Chile, and I had only passed through it while on the way to other regions further south in the country. I went to bed with hopes that everyone I know was okay, but in reality I had no clue what their status was.
I woke up to panoramic photos of massive destruction on the homepage of La Tercera, my Chilean newspaper of choice. Images of people sleeping on sidewalks, fishing boats laying sideways on city streets, and collapsed overpasses in Santiago filled my screen. The photos and related articles were published under the overarching headline of “Megaterremoto en Chile”.
A Megaterremoto. Not a terremoto.
I immediately sent an email to my host mother to check in. For a few days, I hadn’t received a response, but news from a friend’s host family in the neighborhood was promising: no injuries or major damage. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for communities in Chile’s Region VIII, home to the country’s second-largest city, Concepción. In September of 2008, my fellow students and I had traveled to Concepción and the nearby town of Penco, along with other sites in the region. We called Penco home for a few days, staying at a hotel a few blocks from the town’s beach. Spread throughout the town were signs (as pictured above) with arrows that read “Ruta Evacuación de Tsunami” that depicted a gigantic wave and a person running away from the wall of water. As I continued to read through news articles about the quake, I came upon a piece that made me realize how lucky I was. Penco had been hit by a 6m/20ft tsunami soon after the quake, but the Chilean Navy never considered there to be a tsunami threat until after numerous coastal communities had already been hit by the powerful waves. Fortunately the destruction wasn’t catastrophic as it was in other nearby towns such as Talcahuano.
Further reading has informed me to the plight of other towns I had visited (such as Curicó) and the dangers that still exist for the country. Cornell’s Chilean community is relatively small, but students are coming together to make even the smallest difference.
Vivimos un infierno, fue una noche de horror. (We lived through hell, it was a night of horror).
Confirmation that anything that exceeds temblor status is just terrifying.