Chileans often complain to me that we only have one word for “earthquake” in the English language. They strike at varying degrees of intensity, instilling various degrees of reaction in the population. Anything below ~ 5 on the Richter scale, it seems that people generally go “ooo…” then ignore it and go back to sleep/carry on shopping/continue juggling, whatever. This is what Chileans refer to as a “temblor”, or what we in the UK would call a tremor. Over on this side of the planet, one woman told me, they don’t refer to it as an ‘earthquake’ (“terremoto” in Spanish) unless you can’t stand up because the floor beneath you is shaking too much…
For comparison, the last significant earthquake to hit the the UK was in Lincolnshire in 2008, had a measured magnitude of 5.2 on the Richter scale, and I think some tiles fell of someone’s roof and made national news. THAT is a tremor. 7000 miles away, and the last significant earthquake to hit Chile occured in 2010, measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, killed 525 people with 25 people missing, and resulted in an estimated economic loss of US$15-30 billion. It was the 6th strongest earthquake ever recorded – so much so that it even shifted the Earth off its axis by about 3 inches, thus shortening the length of the day by 1.26 millionths of a second! Click here to watch a video of the sort of thing people experienced. The largest ever recorded measured 9.5 on the Richter scale in 1960, killing between 2000-6000 people (no-one was ever sure of the figures), creating localised tsunamis with wave heights of up to 25m, and did an estimated US$2.9-5.8 billion worth of damage. THAT is an earthquake.
But whatever you want to call it, they are bloody horrible things to experience.
Just this weekend past we suffered two earthquakes**, just to give my sister the full Chilean experience alongside the empanadas and mote con huesillos. Firstly, on Friday 23rd March a quake measuring 5.1 hit the Region Metropolitana – the central area where Santiago is found – at 4:30am, and could be felt by my sister and I where we were staying in the coastal town of Viña del Mar some 70km away. Although I must admit, I was so tired out by all the walking we did that day that I think I slept through all but the last 10 seconds of it, whilst poor Laura was lying there wide-eyed! (I must be turning into a true Chilena). It’s also the low, deep, rumbling sound they make that I personally find disturbing… I always thought that Hollywood exaggerated things like that, but maybe not! Both the feeling of the movement through you and the noise just feel completely (ironically) unnatural and extremely unsettling. I think I’m glad we weren’t in Santiago for that one, though… One of my friends afterwards told me that not only could you feel the side-to-side movement that is usual for smaller tremors, but this time you could actually feel the ground move up-and-down, too, as the seismic wave propagated through the ground… Yuck. It wasn’t large enough to do any damage, but it was enough to make the locals get up to turn their lights on and find out what was going on, which speaks volumes!
All newer buildings in Santiago are built to be earthquake-proof to some extent, and what is important is to make the structure resistant to sideways loads (the force exerted on the building from the quake is from the sides, rather than from e.g. the top, as it would be after a heavy snow storm) – this involves having to make the building as light as possible, but being lighter means that it is more likely to sway with the quake movements. So if you’re in an apartment block, the top floors sway more vigorously during a quake than the lower floors as they have less weight above them. My apartment is on the 8th floor (of 11), so I don’t think it should be too bad (I’m yet to feel a quake whilst in my own place!), but I know at least one of my friends lives on the 18th floor… Must be a great view, but really not where I’d want to be when the floor starts moving!
Then on Sunday 25th March, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale hit the Maule region of Central Chile at about 7:30pm and again could be felt in both Santiago and Viña del Mar – almost 200 miles away. To us in Viña, it didn’t feel as strong as the one that happened on the Friday night, but it did last longer. One of the other students who was in Santiago at the time said that he didn’t realise that there had even been another quake, seeing as though he was on the bus which was more rattly than the tremor itself! Laura and I didn’t really think anything of the quake itself at the time – we’d gone out to the beach to watch the sunset when we felt the tremor. You could even see the power lines swaying as the ground shook, and it certainly ruined the romantic moment between the teenage couple sat next to us on the rocks! (which, to be honest, I was a little pleased about. It gets a little tiring watching these young ‘uns suck on each other’s faces all the time). But afterwards, we just thought “oh, that was a little rumbley” and then went to try and find some dinner.
It was only when we came to order, that we had a waiter come over to explain to us (in English, thankfully) that the restaurant were waiting for a call to “find out if we have to evacuate because of tsunami threat or not”. They were fairly blasé about it, though, saying things like “if we get the call to evacuate, we’ll wrap up your food for you to take away. If not, you can stay and enjoy your meal”, and “oh, if we do have to evacuate, just go grab a taxi and go to this town [*writes it on a napkin*] – it’s up a hill”. Obviously, being novices at the whole ‘threat-of-imminent-destruction’ thing we decided not to hedge our bets and just go straight back to our hotel to pack up our things just in case (and I really wanted to get both my Chilean and UK mobile phones to keep in contact with people to find out what was going on). As we were leaving, the waiter held open the door for us, smiled and said “good luck!” – not really what one wants to hear in that situation! (as Laura pointed out: “That’s what they said to each other on the deck of the Titanic just before it sank!”).
So we got back to our hotel, and the guy manning the desk assured us (after we used our garbled Spanglish to ask what on earth was happening) that we didn’t need to go anywhere, and he would tell us if we did. We packed up anyway, and switched the TV on to the news channel to keep an eye on things. This sort of situation is fairly nasty to be in anyway, but when your only sources of information are in a foreign language that you can barely speak or understand, it makes it all the more unnerving – when the news reader is saying something that sounds along the lines of: “Spanish, spanish, spanish, tsunami, spanish spanish”, you just start shouting at the telly “WELL, IS THAT A GOOD THING OR A BAD THING?!” However, after getting in contact with friends back in Santiago (thanks to George and Roger for keeping me updated through the mediums of texting and Facebook, and my good friend Ricardo for translating the news on the Chilean website for me from the Canaries!), we discovered that the tsunami warnings had been rescinded for where we were – initially they had believed that the quake epicentre was in the ocean, which automatically creates a preliminary tsunami warning for coastal areas. However, later on they found the epicentre to have been just 16 miles north of the city of Talca – the same city that bore the brunt of the devastating 2010 quake. Bearing in mind that the quake had happened at 7:30pm, I didn’t relax again until about 1am after I’d gone out for a walk at around midnight and saw that the ocean was right where we left it, which was very reassuring! So things calmed down in Viña and we managed to get to sleep.
Even in Talca, it seems they were fairly lucky. Chile’s national emergency office had initially issued an evacuation order for the Maule region, lifted the alert a little while later after the quake had been analysed further, then re-established the warning after police thought they saw the ocean retreat from shore with the worry that it indicated that a tsunami was indeed on its way. It wasn´t, but office came under fire after the 2010 quake when they issued evacuation orders too late and people died. I think anyone involved would agree that it´s most certainly better to be safe than sorry! There was only slight damage, despite also undergoing more than 19 aftershocks, fourteen people suffered slight injuries and one elderly woman died of a heart attack. A 7.1 mag quake is hardly small, so they seemed to get off relatively lightly, thankfully.
** The U.S. Geological Survey are who I go to to look at the latest quake information