Friday, May 14, 2010

24 hours - Earthquake in Chile

Tree branches scratched at the roof. The house shook. Windows rattled. The lamp tipped over on a bedside table in my room. Glasses crashed to the floor in the kitchen and in the living room. The entire house began to bounce and rock and sway from side to side. Jared and I both broke from our heavy slumber and ran out of our rooms at the same time.

We shouted at each other, “Dude, what the fuck is happening?”

Thinking it was a bad storm, I stuck my head out of the open, bathroom window. The sensation was what I imagine to be the cabin swept away in a tornado, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, but there was no wind. As I surveyed the creaking woodwork I said, “I think our house is falling apart!”

We ran out of the front door in our boxers. Jared shouted as I followed, “Holy shit, bro, the ground is moving, too,”

“Dude…” I said with a confused expression as I leap off of the porch.
Jared said, “I think it’s an earthquake.”

“Holy shit..”

The earth started shaking around 4am and kept shaking for nearly 3 minutes. Several aftershocks followed through dawn. We discovered later in the morning that it had registered in the high 8's on the Richter Scale near its epicenter, and a solid 7.5 in Pucon.

The power was out but water flowed from the tap. Cell phones did not work. A heat wave brought one of the most pleasantly warm and windless days of the summer. Jared and I raced into the center of town on our bicycles, late for work. The sun was bright and the sky blue. No buildings or streets seemed to sustain any cosmetic damage. Businesses were open and active. Did we dream this?

As we rounded the corner onto the main street, we were shocked to see a line of vehicles waiting for fuel that stretched past our line of sight. People looked tired and concerned but patient. This was the last weekend of summer for Chilean vacationers, and the second largest city in the nation and the closest city to the epicenter, Concepcion, had been shaken like a late-night cocktail at a disco. Santiago had reportedly sustained significant damage to its infrastructure and airport. Were homes okay? Loved ones? No one knew. It was time to go home and find out. For many, the earthquake had spiked an urge for flight and an exodus began.

We made it to the Kayak Pucon office to find owners, Rodrigo and Ema, and our driver Mauricio discussing the nights events and rumors of its magnitude and destruction. Rodrigo said he was drinking and dancing with hordes of tourists in the local party spot, Mamas and Tapas, with long time friend and client Emilio when the earth shook the bottles off of the wall behind the bar. Ema was alone in their home, waiting for Rodrigo to return. They exchanged looks, one of wry apology and one of understanding, and then laughed in amazement and relief.

That day there would be no rafting or kayaking trips. The river had been temporarily closed for fear of an unstable riverbed. The volcano had also been closed. Tourism was canceled for the week. Rodrigo said, "This is really bad, bro. Chile is broken."

Friends from Eugene, Oregon, Ryan and Jessica Lambert were camped at the Kayak Pucon land on the Liucura River. They pulled into town and met up with us at the office just after Jared and I had finished telling our tale of the quake. They related their experience as equally surreal, wildly awakened by the moving earth beneath. They were soundly sleeping in their van and had initially thought in their sleepy confusion that someone or some animal had been rocking the van from the outside.

With no power and no work and no official news of the true significance of what had happened to Chile, we collectively decided there was nothing better to do than to celebrate life in the sunshine. We made a run to the store for some food and libations and packed into Ryan and Jess's van for a day on the water. We passed the entire day in front of Rodrigo's family's cabins on the Lago Villarica, soaking up sun on a floating dock and playing around on a stand-up paddle board that had been left as a gift by Dan Gavere. Relative to the earth's chaotic night, the tranquility of that day was remarkable.

Only later that evening did we discover the reach and power of the earthquake. Rodrigo told us again, "This is really bad for Chile, boys." Power had returned and broadcasts of images of collapsed bridges, fallen buildings, cracked and sunken highways, tsunami-flooded coastal towns, looters and the injured. Ryan and Jess dropped us off in town, where the streets were eerily empty but a few restaurants and pubs were full of people glued to televisions, discussing the death count and sharing stories of both tragedy and good fortune. One of our friends had been on a parked bus when a terminal's roof collapsed, but managed to escape unscathed. Another friend told us of her friends who had been crushed and severely injured in a disco on the central coast. We had yet to hear from our buddies who were bus traveling from Pucon to Santiago at the time of the earthquake.

The "celebrate life philosophy" carried us through the night. I vaguely remember mobbing to the lake and drinking rum and cokes on the beach in town with our local friends after the bars had sent us on our way. At 4am the full moon shone enough silver light to brighten smiling and thoughtful faces that stared out at its reflection on the water.

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