DICHATO, Chile — Locals like to say the sea is always tranquil at this beach town on Chile’s central coast. But that tranquility was disturbed forever when a tsunami pounded Dichato two hours after one of the most powerful earthquakes the world has ever witnessed.
Houses were knocked down or swept away to sea. Cars, boats, restaurants — whatever lay in the path of the incoming tsunami — were split apart and tossed about. Nearby, at Coliumo beach, fishing boats weighing at least 10 tons were lifted by the tsunami and deposited three kilometers inland next to farms.
Pamela Medina, 20, says the sky turned an eery reddish-orange, illuminating the view from her perch on a hill overlooking Dichato, located 50 kilometers north of Concepcion. Medina said the waves were about 10 meters high before they crashed down and enveloped the town. She will never forget the sound of the houses cracking apart: “It sounded like thousands of pieces of wood splitting up, one after another."
Like most others in the 3,500-person town, which draws about 10,000 tourists during Chile’s summer season each year (December through February), Medina escaped to the hills after the earthquake shook her out of bed at 3:34 a.m. on Saturday. Her family was aware that a tsunami could follow. Moreover, firemen went through town urging everyone to move to the hills above.
Still, 42 people were missing and 26 confirmed dead as of Wednesday. Many point fingers at a radio broadcast just minutes before the giant waves struck reporting that the Chilean Navy said there was no imminent danger of a tsunami. A number of locals said in interviews that some Dichato residents, upon hearing there was no danger, returned to their homes or stayed put.
Chile Defense Minister Francisco Vidal admitted to reporters earlier this week that they made a mistake by not immediately warning of a tsunami.
But such an admission is not enough for Patricio Dunn, a fisherman, who said he was looking for his brother, Ned, who had been at the waterfront drinking that evening. Showing his brother’s identification card, an angry Dunn, 48, said the government made an unforgiveable error.
In addition, though the Chilean Navy recently arrived with enough food to feed about 500 locals, Dunn complains the government did little to help in the first few days as the town dealt with hunger, lack of shelter and looters.
“We have been on our own,” said Dunn. “We need a lot of help to clean up this place and rebuild, yet the government is too proud to accept help from other countries.”
Another resident angry with the government's handling of things is Alejandro Moena, a professional soccer player. Moena, 30, lost his house to the tsunami and is helping with one of the several makeshift tent camps on the hills above Dichato. Outside the camp entrance, there is a carved piece of wood nailed to a tree that reads: “We Need Help, We Need Food."
Among his biggest complaints, Moena said that at least 10 trucks came into town to loot homes after the earthquake. The local police did catch some of them, but instead of arresting them, they only had to give back the things they took. “How can Chileans steal from people who have already lost so much? Nothing more ugly,” said Moena.
Dichato’s beach had long been one of the region’s favorite spots for sunbathing and water sports. But now it's littered with clothes, kitchen sinks, computer screens and a multitude of other objects.
Several towns suffered from the tsunami. After the tsunami struck Chile’s central coast, it moved on to Juan Fernandez Island where it wiped out nearly half the village. But Dichato is among the hardest hit.
Altogether, about 80 percent of the town has suffered damage from a tsunami that advanced some 800 meters into the town to engulf everything not on high ground.
Now, some residents pick through the debris hoping to recover personal items, like Ricardo Penaranda, 40, who was a waiter at the Puerto Laguna Verde. A popular seafood restaurant and bar on the beach, its two-story structure completely disappeared and all that is visible is the concrete foundation.
“Tourism may never come back. The water was clean, shellfish from here was clean — now the bay is full of cars, houses, other wreckage,” said Penaranda.
The mayor has said he is wary of rebuilding on site, and is instead advocating that the government should relocate the town to a safer spot.
An aftershock off the coast measured 5.9 on the Richter scale on Wednesday. A tsunami alert followed, and everyone in town knew what to do. But nobody was more prepared for the power of a tsunami than Orlando Puentes, a retired taxi driver.
Though his house escaped unscathed, Puentes, 71, and his wife and son have slept in their old, white, four-door Nissan car since the quake. Next to them in the car: suitcases and shopping bags filled with food. “There have been so many aftershocks, you never know,” said Puentes.