02.28.10

What I Saw in Chile

Saturday's earthquake shook buildings for minutes and jammed phone lines, cutting off communication in the middle of the disaster. Foreign-exchange student Cari Pick reports from Santiago.

Saturday's earthquake shook buildings for minutes and jammed phone lines, cutting off communication in the middle of the disaster. Foreign exchange student Cari Pick reports from Santiago.

At 3:34 a.m. in Santiago, Chile, the power and Internet went out in my ninth-floor apartment while I was communicating with friends back in the United States. As I looked up from my computer, irritated at the inconvenience, the room began to shake. I realized I was in the middle of an earthquake, and slowly got up and unsteadily walked over to the open window, sat down on the floor, and stared at the nearby buildings, watching for signs of falling pieces or crumbling walls. As my building swayed for a seemingly endless amount of time, a series of thoughts raced through my mind. I knew Chile is part of the earthquake-prone Pacific Ring of Fire, and I wondered whether I was a naïve foreigner overreacting to a common occurrence. I thought of my fellow foreign-exchange students, some still out enjoying their Friday night in Santiago, and prayed that we would make it through this unexpected welcome to our new home. As I studied the surrounding buildings, mercifully still intact, I felt as if on a ship in the middle of a storm. I could hear plates and picture frames hitting the floor throughout my apartment, and furniture sliding across the floor of my room. A ceramic wall decoration split in half while I caught the television before it could vibrate all the way off of its stand. While the shaking continued, I began to hear sirens in the distance, and felt comforted that the local authorities had a system in place to deal with this disaster, but worried about the tragedy causing them to rush to their destination.

As the aftershocks continued to rock our building, I was able to confirm the safety of only three of the other 23 students I repeatedly texted.

As the building gradually stopped shaking, I heard my Chilean host mother call my name from the other room before coming to check on me. We began to converse in Spanish and I was struck by the strangeness of the situation—this was my first real brush with a natural disaster, and I was in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language. When my host mother said that this was an earthquake of force and duration she had never felt before, instead of the common tremor I initially believed, I was more worried for my friends scattered throughout the city with hosts of their own. The telephone network was too busy to let calls go through, and half of my texts were sent, while the other half bounced back. As the aftershocks continued to rock our building, I was able to confirm the safety of only three of the other 23 students I repeatedly texted. Eventually, my host mother convinced me that the safest place was inside our building, and all I could do was sleep for a few hours and try again in the morning.

Joshua Robinson: What Haiti Can Teach ChileAs I record this surreal experience, it’s still difficult to comprehend that I was near the largest earthquake Chile has experienced in the last 50 years, and one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. Upon our arrival three weeks ago, our professor commented that Chile has a major earthquake every 25 to 30 years. The last major earthquake was 25 years ago. As I look out my window, nearly 24 hours after the initial quake, I see intact buildings, and people walking down the sidewalk like nothing has happened, and I am impressed by the efficiency of the Chilean emergency response in the city. Santiago was 200 miles from the epicenter and escaped relatively unscathed, but I know other cities weren’t so lucky.

Cari Pick is a 21-year-old Junior at the University of Notre Dame, studying Psychology and Spanish. She is from a suburb of Chicago, and is currently studying abroad at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Chile. She spent the last three weeks living with a host family in the rural village of San Dionisio, located near Linares, Chile and chose this study abroad program for its focus on service, and now hopes to be able to help with the post-earthquake relief efforts.