Avocado Republic — 13 October 2014

chile 8.8 quake

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“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.


Walker Rowe

The Avocado Republic of Chile Chile Independence Day Dust and Dirt in Rural Chile
Chaos at the Local School The Market Earthquakes
Love and Romance in Chile The Chilean Concept of Time My Vegetable Garden
The Compost Pile There is no Heat in Chile Drinking Burgoyne
Chilean Food is Boring and Bland Rodeo in Chile The Caretaker
The Cactus Garden Watching the Southern Skies Oscar’s Adventures
Things Fall Apart Argentina’s Dark Culture Rene, the Communist
Chewing Coca Leaves The Mapuche Conflict Cuasimodo

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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About Author

(3) Readers Comments

  1. Too bad for the folks who ended up without water. It’s hard to imagine that kind of world with water shortage, but they say wars will soon be fought for water, not oil.

  2. Hi Mr. Elliot,

    I am a Chilean (now a dual citizen) living in the great Big Apple, I have enjoyed a lot your blog. It is really interesting how a foreigner gets an original and sometimes unique perspective of the system called country, sometimes a much deeper and impartial view.

    It seems that you are having a really good time. I try to do the same here in Manhattan and I think that I should write a blog about my experience discovering the anglo-saxon culture. I know. I am totally aware that NYC is a cultural island in the US soil. More languages are spoken here daily than in the United Nations.

    I am planning to go for vacation with my “gringa” teenager daughter to Chile and show to her a little bit of that part of the world.



    • Hi Rodrigo,

      Thanks for your comments. I have turned the blog into a book which you can get in paper format there in New York by clicking the logo at the top of the page and then buying it from Amazon. Down here we only have Kindle.

      I need to get the word out to more people so tell people about my book and blog, lots of people read it but I want people to buy my book (which is only $10). I gave one presentation in Santiago to a bunch of rich expatriate Americans and Europeans, none of who spoke Spanish. I sold only a few books there.

      I think that outside of New York City the problem is not enough people read anymore. Because what I have written is for people who like to read. Unless you like to read long magazine articles like in The New Yorker you won’t like what I wrote. What I have written here is a really interesting, funny, and easy-to-read account of living in Chile. People who want to live or visit here should be reading that instead of travel guides with lots of pictures and no comment on the culture.

      As for what you want to do, if you want to write your own blog you can do it on Facebook. Just create a page. Make sure you pick a good name as you can only change it once. Then you can write blog posts when you want to and not feel pressure to write a lot of them if you go and make your own website.

      saludos de Chile.


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