Sunday, 28 February 2010

The day the earth moved

After a bit of a hiatus, I fear I have come back with a bang.

For much of the last year, politicians, academics, and other talking heads have debated what a suitable project would be to celebrate Chile’s bicentenary in 2010. It’s now clear. It won’t be statues or parks. It will be a reconstruction the likes of which the country has never seen. Michelle Bachelet has had a lot of bad luck during her term in office, but it is Sebastian Piñera who will have to deal with this during the next four years. Total estimates on damage are being reported as $30 billion, but I suspect if you take in roads, it will run to 50 or 100 billion. The country is, thanks to Andrés Velasco, in good fiscal shape, despite what the incoming government wants you to believe. But it wasn’t prepared for a disaster of this magnitude.

As for me, after almost 48 hours I feel things have settled enough to be able to write about my experience of what will be known as the earthquake of 2010.

First and foremost, I consider myself very fortunate. The scenes on television of destruction and suffering in the South, and especially in Concepción, are heartbreaking. I have several friends with family in the area, and although it seems they are all well, day-to-day living is going to get very tough for a while. The city will take years to recover. Other towns on the coast have disappeared entirely.

For most Chileans, it is the first time they experience a quake this strong. The last one was in 1960, and it was worse, but far more localized. This one has affected literally half the country, and the main cities – Santiago, Valparaiso, and of course Concepción.

As for me, this has been, obviously my first big earthquake, and the strange thing is, at the time I just thought it was a strong tremor. I got up, ran for the door, which fortunately opened. Many people in my building, including an elderly couple on my floor, found that the building had shifted sufficiently so as to not be able to open their front door. For the next couple of hours the sound of the concierge hammering door locks could be heard.

So all the neighbours ran out into the hall, as the building finally stopped swinging. One of them stopped to put on his toupee. Priorities. When I came back in, it was still dark and the power was off. When I tried to open the sliding door in my bedroom, I found a) the earthquake had opened it a bit, and b) it hit something. Turns out it was the TV, which had fallen backwards as another piece of furniture fell on it. It was then that I realized that maybe this was bigger than I thought.

For those who have not lived through an 8-grade earthquake, the closest I can come to describing it is that it is like walking drunk. You think you are walking straight, but you keep bumping into walls. You look ahead but everything is moving. There is a terrible noise, which is in part just the noise of the earth moving, but also the noise of the entire building grumbling, and your property jingling. I vaguely remember hearing things falling.

Fortunately, my phone was working, so I arranged to go to my aunt and uncle’s place, as they had electricity. Amazingly, the generator allowed the gate to open.

It was only about 5 or 5.30 when I got to my aunt and uncle’s. There were lots of people on the streets, some just sitting in park benches, probably afraid to venture back into their buildings.

After a few hours and with daylight, I came back home to see what had happened. Still with no power, I packed a small bag to camp out at my family’s place. But with daylight I realized that more furniture had fallen over, my CDs were all over the place, some kitchen tiles had loosened, but that was it. Nothing, compared to the images on TV. Even compared to my aunt’s place, very little plaster had fallen off. Lucky, lucky, lucky. Saturday there were several aftershocks, which is almost worse than the original, as one doesn’t know just how strong it will get. By the end of the day, though, it was clear that we were in aftershock mode – less frequent and less strong. We felt nothing on Saturday night, but were awakened at 8.30 with a fairly strong tremor (about 6 on the Richter scale). Sunday there has been almost nothing.

It is early days, but I fear the government has not handled this terribly well. They did not manage to predict the tsunamis that hit the coast, and only recently declared the kind of emergency that allow them to deploy soldiers to control looting. But for at least a day and a half, there was not much sign of government help in Concepción, which is only an hour by airplane.

Something else to watch for is the reconstruction effort. Will the Piñera government use the rebuilding effort as an excuse to privatize more roads, hospitals, prisons, ports, etc?

1 comment:

Reed M. Kurtz said...

"Something else to watch for is the reconstruction effort. Will the Piñera government use the rebuilding effort as an excuse to privatize more roads, hospitals, prisons, ports, etc?"

This is what I'm personally most interested to watch, how the Piñera will not only respond to this event but indeed use it to his political advantage. This already gives him a means by which to "define" and create a narrative for himself and his administration, and, as you pointed out, it can be a very convenient excuse to accelerate privatization measures.

I'm also rather curious about what the ramifications for "domestic security" may be: with much of the media focus now turned to the looting going on, and Piñera pledging to "restore order" and such, how will this play out?