Sunday, February 28, 2010

Living through an earthquake

Construction damage The bed was shaking.  To the right, to the left, from the foot upward, from the head down. Left, right, upm down over and over.  It was pitch dark, I could hear things falling to the floor, yet I was not terrified.  On and on went the shaking, the dial on my phosphorescent watch read around 4:30. 

The shaking seemed never-ending.  A pair of table lamps fell from my headboard to the floor. After what I guessed  was between 5 and ten minutes movement finally stopped.

I groped about and located a flashlight I kept near the bed and turned it on, found my glasses and moved the light around the room.  Two lamps were on the floor, nothing else seemed out of place, no cracks or openings in the wall or ceiling joints, no windows broken or cracked.

The rest of the house was somewhat of a shambles, but I found nothing broken except for an old cedar chest whose spindly legs had collapsed.

I located my cell phone and attempted to call my wife.  “Connection error” was the message my phone returned. Same thing with a call to the electric company’s emergency line.

I returned to my bed and as I sat on the side, I felt some further movement, considerably milder than my first shaking.

The phone rang.  The screen told me it was my sister-in-law but as soon as I pressed the connect button the phone went dead with another “connection error” on the screen.  Attempts to return the call brought the same results.

I tried to sleep, but it was like laying in the bunk of a moving train.  I could never sleep on a train and I didn’t succeed sleeping as much as I tried. (In the next 24 hours over 110 after shocks would be recorded).

Soon after daylight broke I dressed.  Showering was impossible since without electricity my water system was useless.  Thanks to a rechargeable shaver I was able to clean my face a bit.

I picked up several fallen lamps around the house as well as several bottles and ornaments which had fallen to the floor.  The inside of most cupboards were in complete disarray and I discovered ONE broken glass among the total disorder in the house.  No structural damage was evident anywhere.

A quick breakfast of fresh fruit and I attempted to phone all the contacts in my phone starting from the top.  After a dozen attempts one phone rang and a Canadian friend answered. He, too, was without power and had felt the quaking, but was without any damage or injuries. No further calls produced any results.

Suddenly my guard-dog, Kelly, started whining excitedly which was strange for him.  I looked out and saw him beside the gate and in the distance my gardener was approaching on foot.  I realized that he had been considerably more terrified by the shaking which had gone on through the night than I was, and he was just happy to see somebody that he knew come to assure him that things might be OK.

I entered my car and struck out for town, looking about for any evidence of disarray or destruction in the 9 km route to town.  The first I noticed was that the approach to the bridge entering Villarrica was barricaded and that traffic was re-routed to a new bridge which had earlier been redirected for use only by traffic leaving town.  I could see little evidence of damage to the old bridge as we crossed the new one, but there was a policeman stationed at the intersection on the other side to direct traffic away from that crossing.

The gas gauge, read about 1/4 tank so I decided to take an alternate route and pass by the service station to fill up before I arrived at my business.  When I arrived at the entrance to the station, there was already a line up which stretched some three blocks to the south.  Innocently, I decided to leave the gasoline for a later moment and proceeded directly to my shop. 

A large bus was blocking the street as I approached my parking place so I had to proceed with caution to the place where I left my car.  Because of the obstruction I hadn’t noticed that a small dwelling beside the bus had completely collapsed.

On arrival at the shop, where we distribute tires and batteries, I noticed little out of the ordinary, and since it was Saturday and before 10:00 it didn’t even seem odd that the doors were still closed.

On entering, I noticed some display stands turned over and a few piles of tires had fallen, but it wasn’t till I ascended to my second-floor office that I was able to appreciate the complete shambles which confronted me there with all of the books which lined two wall almost all scattered about on the floor.

My secretary had started to put things back into order, and apart from telling me that there was no electricity could not tell me much more about the general state of affairs.  The fixed line phone system was partially working but no internet connections were available.

The 30 high sign which stood on a 1 foot steel pole was leaning against the building, slightly inclined down to where the welding on the pole had broken some 7 feet above the ground.  Any further strong shaking could easily dislodge the massive sign and bring it crashing down.  We had to find a welder who had his own electrical generator to make repairs.

Aftershocks continued, at what seemed to me on an almost regular schedule.  Since the early morning I had the impression that there were regular shakes occurring more or less every hour on the hour.

There was no sense in opening since we depended on electricity for most of our services and I sent a couple of employess off to try to find a welder with a generator when phoning produced no results.

I walked down to the service station on the corner to see if the line had diminished and saw it was longer than before. I spoke to a police man who informed me that one of the highway to Valdivia was impassable due to a 15 meter wide rupture but that other roads were passable.  The problem with travel was not so much the roads but the availability of gasoline as evidenced by the line at this station … and the fact that some stations would be without any fuel at all.

My secretary suggested that it would be an idea to use a gas can she had in her car to purchase at least 10 litres of gas, but when we sent someone to the station they refused, saying that only vehicles were being filled, and that we’d have to get into line.  Knowing the owner, nor being a regular customer wasn’t of any use.

We were on the point of setting out to join in the line when I decided to send someone to inquire how much fuel they had left.  It didn’t make much sense to me to get into a line of several hundred cars only to have the station run out of gas before we reached the pumps.  It turned out that while we were making the inquiry, the pumps ran dry and no word was available as to when the tanker would arrive to refill their supply.

I managed to communicate with my wife at her Inn in Lican Ray and learned that she had electric power re-established.  Since no word was available from the local power company as to when power would be available in the town or the rural area where my house was situated, I decided to drive there in spite of the limited fuel I had.  At least we would have electricity, water and a stock of food for a few days.

Up to that point, the only thing that I had been able to learn about the general situation in the country was from a neighbour who had learned from his car radio that the epicentre of the quake seemed to be near Concepcion where a force of over 8 on the Richter scale had been registered.

A walk around Villarrica revealed relatively little damages.  The small dwelling about three doors down from my shop and another small construction where a cement wall had fallen down were the only damages of houses we observed.  A large store, which had been in a very old, poorly constructed building had suffered considerable damages.  Most businesses, likely for the lack of electricity, kept their doors closed.

Before I left to drive to Lican Ray I was surprised to have my phone ring showing a number which I didn’t recognize on the screen.  I answered and wonder of wonders, was speaking to a friend from Ecuador who had heard of the quake and was concerned for our well-being.

I assured him that we were physically in good shape but almost without any communication and knowledge of the rest of the country.  He assured me he’d communicate with my two daughters to put them at ease over our well-being.

There was one minor fissure in the highway from Villarrica to Lican Ray which hardly was noticeable and only one structure, a local handicrafts store, had a canopy over the entrance which had obviously collapsed.

On arriving I drove by the town’s single gas station, in the hopes that it might be operating and have little or no line up.  This line was only slightly shorter than the ones at Villarrica’s stations. I chose to go directly to the Inn and wait til things had stabilized a bit before trying to get gas.

How Amazon could Help

Just a couple of weeks back I had purchased a Kindle e-book reader from Amazon.  Since I had not established with any external or national source I decided to see if it’s wireless connection was working and discovered that I could connect with the on-line store.

It occurred to me that I might register a plea for help by putting in a search for a book called “Help Major Earthquake in Chile”  The search  did not produce any results, as I rather expected, but still I hoped that someone might review their logs and might somehow trace the origin of the message to my general whereabouts.

Even if it didn’t work, this seems to me an excellent potential for assistance in disaster situations perhaps by establishing a special code which would allow the contact to be routed for special handling.

Next I decided to do a search on Wikipedia for Chile Earthquakes and was amazed to discover the extensive information which had already been published by them about the size, extent and general overview of the situation, barely 12 hours after it had taken place.

I have managed to connect, very briefly to the internet to send out a short email to many of my friends and relatives who might have concerns about what is happening but that connection was short lived.

I’ve seen, on TV locally the enormous effort which the country and the government is making to re-establish a basic level of normality to the situation, and must say that from what I’ve seen so far, it is very impressive over how well they’ve been able to handle the situation, especially in light of the estimates I’ve read which estimate this earthquake to be over 500 times that which has recently devastated Haiti.

The government has declared that the entire country is in a state of catastrophe with over 13 million persons affected.  While I don’t mean to diminish what this has meant to others who have suffered losses far in excess of what we’ve experienced, I do believe that the “affect” which most people have seen here is likely much more like mine than the few which have been featured and dramatized by much of the news media.   Personally, my greatest agony, I think, has been from Internet withdrawal. I hope my story serves as a useful counterpoint.

1 comment:

Canadian Expat Association said...

We are all watching with genuine concern. Please let us know how things are going and if there is anything specific that can be done.