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Thursday's earthquake in Costa Rica

Being from New York, I have little past earthquake experience, but Thursday's quake gave my office a good shake. It started at 1:15 p.m. (central time), and it came on suddenly, rather than working steadily up to its 6.2-magnitude. The ground waved a bit, walls swayed and a few objects fell over. Aftershocks followed throughout the afternoon. Just down the block, the court building and other government offices were told to evacuate — and got the rest of the day off.

However, few people in the city of San Jose, where I was, seemed to comprehend the actual severity of the quake closer to its epicenter, near a popular tourist site about 55 km from the capital, Poas Volcano.

Then news from the National Emergency Commission came pouring in: hundreds stranded, landslides, hydropower plants and water sources damaged. Next day, it became clear that several charming rural communities had turned to "ghost towns," as the local media called them. These included not very well known names to foreigners, Cinchona and Los Cartagos.

The Tico Times put together a pretty moving online Photo Report

I visited a shelter yesterday in the area of Heredia, north of San Jose, where 160 people are sleeping in primary school classrooms, and Black Hawk helicopters on loan from the United States and Colombia flew overhead. Each time the chopper's pounding staccato sound was heard flying by it put evacuees even more on edge, because police said the helicopters were carrying dead bodies.

The "official" death toll has fluctuated dramatically, perhaps highlighting the chaotic nature of the relief effort, or even a disjointed strategy by several emergency and humanitarian agencies and police. By this morning the Red Cross said 19 were dead, and police had identified 10 by name.

The shelter dwellers were also concerned about their property and belongings they left behind. Crime is still on everybody's minds here, and even in a time of national tragedy, it continues to stab at wary citizens' nerves. Police yesterday caught two people allegedly carrying stolen jewelry and cash away from evacuated homes.

It's been a rude awakening into 2009 for the Ticos indeed. 

Here's an email I got from someone who was right by the volcano when the quake occurred: 

"We had just gotten off the observation deck when the quake hit. The ground raised 3 feet to the right then 4 feet to the left. I was thrown from 15 feet! We got to experience the whole evacuation and intensity of the grave situation. People running, screaming, laying on the ground." — Mark Davis