Afershocks Add Lingering Reminder of Massive Chile Quake

Regional Technical Advisor for Emergencies, Holly Inurreta, is helping with the response to the 8.8 earthquake that rattled Chile on February 27th. The temblor killed an estimated 700 and displaced around 2 million. Holly is traveling with CRS South America zonal representative, Brian Goonan, visiting different Caritas Chile members, and gives us a first hand account of the response in Chile.

We were in a meeting with the archbishop of Concepción when the aftershocks hit. One reached a magnitude of 7.2, the strongest one to date. It felt like I was sitting in a swimming pool, my chair was rocking as if on water. I looked up at the wall and saw a picture of the Virgin Mary. I wondered if the quake would cause it to move or fall, but the building we were in was solid, the epicenter was much farther north, and we were completely safe.

The caretaker of the house we stayed in was at the supermarket in Talca when the earthquake struck. The store had just reopened and her cart was filled with food, when the aisle began to shake. Everyone ran out. Soon afterward, the store allowed 20 people back in to check out, and then the second aftershock hit. The store closed its doors for the day. She was left without any groceries and had to leave empty-handed.

People were calm after the aftershocks in Concepción. The main damage in the area was caused by the tsunami tides that flooded the city and not the earthquake itself. So when a tsunami alert was announced yesterday you could see the panic return. In recent days people had developed a daily rhythm and had begun the process of settling back into their communities. Church volunteers were bringing in boxes of relief supplies and people were trying to get back in their homes. As a precaution the community was evacuated because of the strength of the aftershock but fortunately there was no tsunami, although some areas of Chile did suffer damage.

Once the tsunami alerts were lifted we left Concepción and traveled farther north. With each new town we passed through the damage we saw grew progressively worse. When we were in Concepción we thought, this is bad—but not so bad that Chile can’t respond without the support of the larger international community. But after what we saw today—the destroyed houses in the towns dotting Chile’s Northern coast, we’re realizing that the country really does need outside assistance.

From what we’re seeing, I believe that the official estimates of 500,000 destroyed homes is rather low, and that this number will grow. There still isn’t a clear idea of the scope of the destruction. Because of previous earthquakes, the houses here are well built. Many Chileans are well prepared to respond to tsunamis and earthquakes. But there are places like Talca, a city of about 200,000, and all the small coastal villages of Maule that suffered 60 percent loss and damage to homes. We visited the town of Curepto today, where 85 percent of the residents are without homes. This historic town was founded several hundred years ago, during the colonial period when the buildings were made of adobe. It’s about 25 miles from the coast and people would stop there for provisions before going down to the beach. Many of the churches and buildings there were designated historic sites, and they are now rubble.

So, even though a lot of lives were saved, the damage to infrastructure is immense. For example, 40 percent of the schools in Maule have been damaged or destroyed. The hospital in Talca was the main hospital in the region and even though it was a new structure, the second floor is covered with terrible cracks and it is structurally unsound. The hospital staff now has to use a tent hospital to tend to the sick.

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