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Chile earthquake aftermath: A look at Santiago

March 8, 2010 |  6:42 pm
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There's been a sweeping outpouring of solidarity in Santiago with victims of the magnitude 8.8. earthquake in Chile's central-southern regions, as  reported in the L.A. Times. Chile's modern capital city was not as heavily damaged by the Feb. 27 quake as other more heavily affected areas, but its landscape and culture have been affected in subtle ways in the quake aftermath.

I've spent a week exploring the culture here, checking out interesting neighborhoods, riding the metro, watching the local news and reading a range of local newspapers. Residents tell me the city feels calmer since the quake. People dropped coins into collection boxes, hung Chilean flags from windows and balconies, and donated tons of food, clothing, and supplies intended for the victims.

In the press, psychologists are reminding Chileans that it is “OK to cry.” It's as though Chileans are still searching for ways to deal with the emotional and psychological aftershocks that come with a historically devastating seismic event.

“Before we were just staring at our bellybuttons, individualists, not knowing our neighbors,” said Catherine Mayozer, a television actress emceeing a rowdy benefit concert at Bustamante Park in downtown Santiago. “This has made Chileans speak to one another again, to speak on the streets, on the buses.”

The city has endured two to three major aftershocks a day since last week’s “megathrust” earthquake – and then some. A 6.4 earthquake hit to the north of the capital on Thursday night, followed by up to four considerable aftershocks between midnight and breakfast time on Friday.

More were recorded on Sunday, including a magnitude 5.0 temblor off the coast of Valparaiso. And then -- almost cruelly -- two more considerable aftershocks hit Santiago before dawn Monday, one measuring 4.9 and another measuring 5.1.

In all, nearly 200 aftershocks have rattled nerves in central Chile. Inside homes and apartment buildings, fresh cracks crawl across walls. Day after day, windows and lampshades rattle, walls buckle slightly, and floors sway gently for a few seconds, as if in a lilting breeze. The effect is dizzying.

“We get used to it,” said a gray-haired barber named Luis Baeza. “You control the fear.”

Baeza said he rode out the 9.5-magnitude quake in May 1960 – the largest ever recorded on the planet – as a child in his mother’s arms. He held his own son through the magnitude 8.0 quake of March 1985. And he watched his son hold onto his grandson through the recent big quake.

“In a month, everyone will build their houses just where they were,” Baeza said, shrugging. “That’s how we are.”

People in Santiago have responded with a range of complex emotions to the quake. There was embarrassment and shame at images of looting, which exposed, in the words of social scientist Claudio Fuentes Saavedra, "the two faces of Chile" -- the economic and social disparities that persist despite years of economic progress.

And there was anger at what's been called a tepid government response in the immediate aftermath of the quake, a fair share of finger-pointing, as well as the gallows humor that permeated conversations.

“Foreign friends visiting bars get surprised to see a popular drink called an Earthquake, which is just white wine and pineapple ice cream,” said Sonia Lira, a local columnist. “So, when kids in the bars want another round they holler ‘An aftershock is coming, why don’t you join me?’ "

The people of Santiago regularly visit the coastal areas that were severely damaged by the quake’s tsunami waves, making images of destruction from the Bio Bio and Maule regions difficult to bear, many said. The political ramifications of the quake were also challenging for regular Chileans.

The brutal military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended just two decades ago. President Michelle Bachelet – who was herself held and tortured during the regime – came under criticism for not sending the military earlier to maintain order in the most affected regions. But the military also faced criticism for not alerting some coastal regions about a potential tsunami after the quake struck.

“I was conflicted about it,” said Selena Molina, 32, an anthropology student at the University of Chile, referring to the presence of soldiers on the streets. “But people needed order, and on top of that there was the riffraff who were taking things that weren’t necessary.”

“The thing is Chileans are used to having weapons around,” Molina added. “So without that, people had respect for nothing.”

Molina and a group of her friends were at a benefit concert at Bustamante Park. Night had fallen as it was winding down. Young people crowded the sidewalks and plazas above the underground Baquedano metro station, playing guitars, singing, chanting, holding aloft large bottles of Cristal, a low-cost Chilean lager that someone described as this country's "Budweiser."

It was one of the rowdiest, loudest concerts I've ever experienced -- and I've survived plenty of rowdy outdoor concerts living in Mexico City. Watching the scene I understood exactly what a young woman meant when she she said the event was like a "release" for Chile's youth, who will now be forever marked by the 2010 earthquake.

— Daniel Hernandez in Santiago, Chile.

Photo: Chileans attend a benefit concert in Santiago. Credit: Daniel Hernandez

 

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