The magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck at 3:30 A.M on February 27 of this year was the fifth largest in recorded history. For the survivors in the Chilean coastal city of Constitución the shaking was only Act I in a drama that was repeated in other towns along the coast. The two minutes of shaking by the earthquake was followed in twenty minutes by a tsunami that inundated and destroyed the low-lying portions of the city on the water’s edge.
During a visit that I made to the city in July I got a chance to talk to some of the survivors. I was in Chile on a visit organized by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the American Red Cross. The eighteen members of the group included not only members of the LA Chapter, but state officials from California’s emergency management agency, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, a civil engineering professor from the University of Colorado, a physician, and me, a state emergency manager from Florida.
On the afternoon of the second day of our tour of the earthquake affected region, we departed the city of Talca, the capital of the Maule region of Chile, for the city of Constitución. The city lay at the juncture of the Maule River and the ocean, gradually occupying and then filling the valley as we descended from the mountains. When we arrived at the river’s edge in the center of town we were presented with a view of the Pacific. Dusk was approaching and the spectacle of hundreds of sea gulls circling to our front diverted us from the panorama of an orange band that separated the horizon from the low hanging clouds.
As our vehicle crept forward, I saw an island in the river to our right, and eventually the reason for the interest of the birds. The Constitución fishing fleet was unloading their catch; orange, blue and white plastic tubs filled with strips of silver. Young men muscled the tubs from the boats and stacked them by the street to be loaded on waiting trucks. The fishermen wore slickers and had dark, sunburned faces. They stood on their boats and stowed their nets with practiced hands, repeating the motions of centuries.
The thought came to my mind: what a hard job.
Beyond the fishermen was the island, and I tried to imagine that awful morning. On the day of the earthquake the city had planned a traditional annual festival. In order to get a good view of the festivities and the fireworks, local inhabitants and visitors from out of town camped on the island that divided the river as it passed into the sea. When the terrible shaking had ended, three fishermen were able to use their boats to begin evacuating the island. They knew what was coming, and what would happen if those people could not be taken off. They carried away forty-five, and then went back for more. When the tsunami hit two of the fishermen were killed. Later, when they searched the island, dead children were found hanging in the trees.
The tragedy of the deaths is great, but what is surprising is that more didn’t die. Of the five hundred and seventy six deaths from the Feb 27 earthquake, approximately half were from the tsunami. The 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti the prior month was several orders of magnitude less severe, yet the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands. Haiti is not like Chile, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of the two countries could tell. Yet Chile clearly handled the response to the earthquake very well, despite the size and severity of the event. Why did they do so well? That question was the reason for our visit.
The big measure of the quality of the Chilean response was that the coverage of the disaster dropped off CNN after a few days. As every emergency manager knows, if Anderson Cooper is still camped with his TV cameras in the middle of your response after two weeks, then you must have done something wrong.
We are writing a report of our findings and look to have the first draft completed by the end of this month. When the report is completed I will share it with you. I will be making presentations on what we learned at every opportinity in the upcoming months.
On our way to Constitución we stopped by a temporary village, or Aldea, that the government had constructed for those left homeless by the tsunami or earthquake. Two women inhabitants approached us, drawn by the strangers and not afraid to talk about their plight. The Aldea, constructed on the empty land of a nearby sawmill, consisted of small wooden structures, called mediasaguas. Communal bathrooms and showers served for sanitation. Utility poles were installed in May and brought electricity to the dwellings. Although protected from the rain, the poorly insulated houses could not keep out the cold.
We asked if we could see inside one of the mediasagus, and after a moment’s hesitation, the women to the left in the above photo said yes. She led us down a muddy street, where a trio of girls made mud pies with toy dishes. Inside the home a man, probably her husband, crouched over a tub of dishes in the middle of the floor. He stood to greet us with dripping fingers. The home was clean and neat, but the man’s eyes clearly conveyed the daily struggles of their existence.
As we said good-bye to the people in the Aldea, the woman who had shown us her home embraced the women in our group and, in the custom of her country, exchanged kisses on the cheek with the men. We were leaving to continue our journey into the earthquake zone and eventually return home to our families and homes. She was left to continue her life of cold, wet and mud in a small wooden shack to which the earthquake had condemned her.
“No nos olvide,” she called out to us as we climbed into our vehicles. “Don’t forget us.”
Her plea broke my heart; the first, but not the last time this was to occur while I was in Chile. No, I won’t forget her. Hopefully, you won’t either.