SANTIAGO, Chile — One of the most seismically active countries in the world, Chile has been through this before.
In 1960 an incomprehensibly powerful magnitude-9.5 quake — the largest ever recorded on the planet — leveled the southern city of Valdivia. The country was walloped again in 1985 by a temblor that killed nearly 200 people.
Still, as the country digs out from its latest disaster, Saturday’s 8.8-magnitude shocker, people here agree that for all their past experience, no one can really be prepared for a disaster of this scope.
On a personal level, the monster quake, which rolled on for a seemingly interminable two minutes, came as slap in the face.
Leonel Araya, a Santiago doorman, has been through several of Chile’s notorious earthquakes, including a deadly 1982 "maremoto," or tsunami, in the northern city of Arica that cost him a son. The quakes have taught him to be more “humanitarian,” he said, to not put too much stake in material things. Nevertheless, the intensity of this most recent event — and the hour at which it struck — took him completely by surprise.
“No one’s prepared for something like this. I was asleep. I thought I was dreaming, but it wasn’t a dream. It was real,” said Araya. “All one can hope for is to protect your family. The things that really matter aren’t for sale. When I woke up, I just improvised. The one thing you try to do is open the door, more than anything else, because the door frame protects the family.”
Jose Gill, a 23-year-old volunteer who spent Monday morning clearing debris in downtown Santiago, said he thinks it's impossible to become accustomed to such chaos.
“You can’t really get used to this, because it happens from one moment to the next,” Gill said. “There’s no warning. You can see right now that the country’s in panic. Things are happening that have nothing to do with the earthquake.”
Three days after the quake, attention is now being focused on the areas closest to the epicenter – the southern Bio Bio and Maule Regions. Chilean authorities extended a curfew in the badly damaged city of Concepcion after looters descended upon supermarkets and pharmacies.
Overnight, tanks and soldiers roamed the dark, silent streets of Concepcion, where rescue workers are still trying to remove victims from a collapsed high-rise apartment building. The death toll nationwide currently stands at 723.
“People are desperate,” said Andrea Cordoba of the aid organization World Vision. “They’re without water, without food. Now troops are taking over the streets. It controls the disorder, but also adds significantly to the trauma. Because obviously people are already traumatized from having gone through the earthquake. I went through it too, and I tell you, I’m still scared. The chaos and the public disturbances just add to it.”
Hardly comforting to the tens of thousands mourning the loss of life or still awaiting word from loved ones trapped in the hardest-hit areas, much is being said — especially in the international press — about how relatively well the country withstood the disaster.
Indeed, Chile’s comparative prosperity and history of earthquakes helped it avoid the levels of carnage seen in places like Haiti, devastated just weeks ago by a 7.0-magnitude quake.
“In 1960 the country’s infrastructure was much more fragile,” said Camilo Navarro, an elderly Santiago resident whose daughter had to evacuate what has become one of enduring symbols of the quake: a five-year-old apartment complex tottering on the verge of collapse in the western suburb of Maipu.
“I went through that, and later the '85 earthquake. The latter prompted authorities to take measures, especially for taller buildings. But certainly they’ve got to conduct new studies for the sake of future generation, to provide even more protection.”