“The Avocado Republic of Chile, because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide. Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. American writer, Walker Rowe, sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet. What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.
12 October 2013.
Everyone here in Chile is always thinking about earthquakes, because they happen every day. A few months ago there was an 8.0 earthquake in Napa Valley, California that destroyed a few buildings and killed one person. That same day, we had an 8.4 quake in Iquique, in the north of Chile. There was very little damage to buildings and no injuries, except for a new neighborhood where some developers had recently built houses atop land that is nothing but sand. Lots of fishing boats were sunk in the harbor by the tsunami that came rushing onshore.
Chilean structures are earthquake proof. The houses in Chile are built with reinforced concrete, or, as in the case of where I am living now, wooden structures atop poles that move with the tremors. The tallest skyscraper in Latin America is in Santiago. At 70 stories, it is earthquake proof. The building sits on top of giant shock absorbers and will swing back and forth in a big earthquake. Nothing should happen as the building rocks back and forth. But the people working on the upper floors might get thrown thrown through the windows.
The quakes here are different than the California quakes. In California, quakes occur near the surface. There, the ground breaks loose as one fault slips past another. Those quakes last only a few seconds. Here in Chile, the quakes are very deep, like 100 km. Plus they tend to last quite a long time, a full minute or longer. The South American continent is rising over the Nazca plate. When pressure builds and releases, the ground lurches forward and up. In 1960, the strongest quake ever recorded in history hit Valdivia, Chile. It was 9.5 on the Richter scale. The coastline actually rose more than a meter.
There is a tremor every month or so you can feel; there are many more than you cannot feel, especially if you are walking. This year we had one 6.4 and last year 7.1. I was in my apartment in Santiago then. The building shook vigorously for a long time. When the 7.1 quake hit, the walls were shifting back and forth with a lot of noise. But there was no damage. Fifteen months before I moved to Chile in 2011, the 8.8 quake that did such destruction in Concepción did no damage at all to my building, except I cannot close my sliding glass doors and windows tightly. Hundreds of houses collapsed in that quake. Those were older Adobe houses in Curicó and Talca that lacked reinforced concrete walls. In a famous picture shown round the world, one large one apartment building in Concepción rose up and split completely in half. Engineers said it was not designed properly, as other buildings in the area did not suffer such catastrophic damage. Still, many people lost their homes. The Chilean government rushed in and quickly built replacements and paid for it all.
Across Chile there are usually 5 or more earthquakes every day of 3.0 or greater intensity. They do not even make the news until they are magnitude 6 or greater. That happens every month somewhere in Chile. Almost every day there is at least one and usually two quakes of magnitude 5 or 5.5. Maybe every year there is one of magnitude 7 or higher.
I have gotten used to feeling the ground move here. It does not frighten me, as I know nothing is going to fall down, since the buildings are designed to move with the quake and there is rebar inside each concrete wall. Sometimes the quake is one sudden jolt. Sometimes there is a slightly rattling. Some quakes send noise from the ground, other quakes, even big ones, do not make ground noise. Often electric power or cellular service goes out in areas.
The biggest fear here are the tsunamis. In the Iquique quake of a few months ago, the people did as they were trained to do, which was to walk to high ground. If everyone got in their cars and drove, they would quickly go nowhere, as the streets would become clogged. Those close to the tall buildings along the beach are supposed to climb the stairs there.
The seismologists say that it would take 15 minutes to get to high ground before a tsunami comes ashore there. It takes 13 minutes to walk to high ground from any point in Iquique. So the Chilean seismologists need to make the determination if there is a tsunami coming in 2 minutes. Currently it takes about 7.
To give you an idea of how common earthquakes are here, my wife drove to her law office when the 8.8 earthquake hit in February 2010, as if it was a normal day. One of the freeways in Santiago collapsed, but my wife drove to work anyway. She went with her father. They turned around and went back home when it was clear there was too much debris in the road.
The largest loss of life in that 8.8 quake was in the fishing village of Talcahuano. Someone in the government made the tragic mistake of not telling the people that there was a tsunami warning. The American Pacific Tsunami Warning System said there indeed was a tsunami on its way. 500 people were killed, the vast majority by drowning, as the ocean rose, carrying boats and even small ships miles inland. A friend who live 700 miles north of Talcahuano said that the bay in front of his house emptied out as water flowed out to sea. That must have been an incredible sight.
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