Surveying Damage in Chile Earthquake Aftermath

Chile quake

A woman looks out over rubble in a street in Talcahuano hit by an earthquake and then later by three tsunami waves. Photo by Holly Inurreta/CRS

Regional technical advisor for emergencies, Holly Inurreta, is helping with the response to the 8.8 earthquake that shook Chile on February 27. The temblor killed an estimated 700 people and displace about 2 million. Holly is traveling with CRS South America zonal representative, Brian Goonan and Caritas Concepción representative, Jaime Torres Jofre, and gives us a first hand account of what she saw as she traveled to the earthquake’s epicenter in Concepción.

What under pre-earthquake conditions would have been a five-hour trip from Santiago to Concepción took us seven. We traveled over stretches of highway that were in good condition, pockmarked by downed bridges and cracked asphalt in several places.

The Chilean government has done an excellent job marking where the road is damaged, so we knew when to slow down, or when the 4-way highway would narrow into two-lanes because a damaged bridge has shut down lanes. I’m told that travel was much slower over the weekend, because concerned relatives came in droves to help their loved ones.

Chile damage

Families in Talcahuano were doubly affected first by the earthquake and then one hour later by three successive tsunami waves. Photo by Holly Inurreta/CRS

One of our first stops was Talcahuano, a small fishing town outside of Concepción. The lower-middle class neighborhood of Santa Clara was devastated by a Tsunami an hour and a half after the earthquake. Due to conflicting information from authorities on whether there was a Tsunami threat, some residents did not evacuate. As a result, 40 people died.

Many of the individually owned houses, which were constructed with government subsidies after the 1960 earthquake, are still standing because they were built to withstand seismic activity. But while the houses remained intact, everything inside was destroyed. The ocean waves left watermarks on walls that reach about 4 feet high.

Inside each home everything is covered in mud. It reminds me a bit of what Gonaives, Haiti looked like after the hurricanes in 2008 caused flood waters of mud to pour into the city. Here it’s only four feet of water and 1 foot of mud, but it still has that same feel.

Outside these houses there are baby dolls and other toys lying in the streets. People line up salvaged belongings. Everyone is simply clearing their homes of the rubble and the government is bringing in trucks to clear out the garbage. One of the women we spoke told us that she lost everything but is hopeful that she can rebuild. That’s the general feeling here—hope. People are very grateful for the help they’ve received from the local priest who works with Caritas Concepción.

For the most part, people are very calm here and eager to talk about what happened. One man we spoke to evacuated his home after the earthquake, while another woman said that she was waiting to hear sirens warning of the tsunami. Those sirens never came, but she heard screams that the water was coming and she gathered her daughter and was able to escape to higher ground.

The work of Caritas Concepción in response to this emergency has been nothing short of impressive. Much of the staff has been working together for over 20 years. Fortunately they had just received emergency preparedness training in January, so things were fresh in their minds. Their team had food kits brought down from Santiago and sent them to different distribution points. We visited a large stadium teeming with youth groups getting things out to people who were identified by the municipalities and the parishes as those most in need.

Fortunately Caritas Concepción has been doing an excellent job and our work at CRS will be to support them in their efforts. The first phase of the response is to provide food and water, and the second phase is to help people clean up their homes. Much of the clean up has already started. They are hoping to restore potable water as early as tomorrow, but for now people are still transporting buckets of water in wheelbarrows.

The sights we see on these types of trips can sometimes be otherworldly. We passed a boat today that stood twice as a high as our vehicle. It was pushed in by the waves, even though we were about 200 yards away from the sea. The boat’s fishing nets pulled along the ground as it came ashore, as if it had been fishing but only caught debris. The net is now draped over a building– it’s final catch in the tsunami swells.

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