After the quake: A visitor’s impressions

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Editor’s note: Charlie Maddaus teaches English at Dirigo High School. Two months after the 8.8 earthquake on Feb. 27 , he visited family living in the affected region in central Chile.

Terremoto–four short syllables–the double r pronounced with the tongue against the roof of the mouth like a child imitating the roar of a motor or, in this case,  the feel of the world moving while two plates of the earth re-arrange themselves.  Two months after an 8.8 earthquake shook the central region of Chile, we had a chance to see, first-hand, that signs of the damage from the monster quake are visible but the sounds of rebuilding and of lives moving forward are pervasive.  

Central Chile, outside of the metropolis that is Santiago, the capital city, is a farming area–valleys and hillsides devoted to grapes, strawberries, kiwis, citrus, pomegranate, and avocado.  The people live close to the earth and its rhythms.

When the earthquake struck at 3:34 a.m. on Feb. 27, most people of Villa Alhue were sleeping. By the time they awoke and realized that this was more than the usual rumbling that affects their earthquake-prone region, their floors were littered with broken glass.  Lacerations of the feet was the most common visible injury as people ran from their beds through the rubble of their broken dishes gathering the very young and the very old and bringing them to safety in the outside.  

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They stayed outside for two weeks, living around campfires and under grape arbors, as strong aftershocks continued while the two plates of the earth tried to once again find a comfortable position.  The most common invisible injury is post traumatic stress as the people of the region fear that every tremor might build again to the crescendo of another major quake. As reminder, a 4.7 tremor centered 50 miles away gave us a shake in bed, the second morning of our visit.

On Feb. 27, the school year was just about to begin but summer vacation was extended as government engineers inspected each school building to make sure that they were safe for the students to enter.  As of April 27, all of the schools were once again open, although many of them near the earthquake’s epicenter in the Bio Bio region are in tents.  A fellow traveler who had been south to the city of Concepcion, described it simply–“like a war-zone”–with more buildings destroyed than standing.

Upon turning 18, Chilean males are required to serve a 12- to  24-month stint in the military and within days of the earthquake, this young work force was dispatched into villages and towns to assist in demolition and rebuilding.  Adobe structures which had stood for hundreds of years had crumbled and backhoes were brought in to the clear away the history and to make room for new construction.    The sense of the community coming together for a common purpose was palpable.

The roads and bridges suffered damage that is also being addressed.  Bridges lost their approach spans and shook apart at their expansion joints.  Many bridges are under repair and open to one lane of traffic at a time.  It takes a fair amount of courage to be part of that one lane of traffic, but living with the constant threat of another earthquake brings out many qualities in a people.

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