HELEN HUGHES – Santiago de Chile – 2010

Of Earthquakes and Tsunamis, March 9, 2010

I’m still overwhelmed by the major 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile on Feb. 27 about 3:30 a.m., only to be followed by a tsunami that wiped out various beach towns and fishing villages along the country’s south-central coast.

The Dantesque scenes from towns like Constitucion, Dichato, Iloca, Pelluhue and the island Juan Fernandez haunt me. Ships weighing tons deposited kilometers inland, cars trapped in treetops or belly-up like dead cockroaches, heavy machinery turned into scrap, houses tossed about like a fallen tower of cards, buildings askew, terror in the eyes and voices of survivors (and news crews) during aftershocks, bodies recovered from the briny mud, waves of heavy wooden beams snapped like matchsticks that lap against the shore, and the overall stench of death and destruction.

Maybe these images haunt me because we underwent the shaking and jumping and rolling of the earth that seemed to last a lifetime only meters from the shoreline.

I imagined that the sandy cliff separating us from the narrow beach below would be protection. I was wrong. I blocked the door of the ground floor apartment of a new building in the beachside condo where my 4 children, 4 grandchildren, and I huddled to watch the dust and debris cascading down the 9 stories above us. We spent the after hours of darkness scrutinizing the sea in the moonlight, thinking the sea would recede before a tsunami. Wrong again.

We were only lucky that no 60-foot wave crashed ashore near us.

Some places were hit within minutes of the quake and several survivors reported no prior withdrawal of the sea, just successive swells that grew far beyond any normal proportions. One said the first surge was up to the knee, the second to the chest and the third rolled in far higher than a man, with the velocity and strength to wipe out the entire coastline, crumple homes, mangle metal, uproot trees and take lives.

Many survivors of the earthquake must have perished by drowning.

Now they tell us that whenever you find yourself on the coast in an earthquake with enough strength to knock you off your balance or your feet, then you should run for higher ground inland immediately.

Don’t wait around for anybody to issue a tsunami warning and don’t believe any all-clear statement from authorities. Many who did here in Chile, died.

The quake itself IS your warning that a tsunami could be on its way.