More Thoughts on the Earthquake in Santiago, Chile

By now most Casual Kitchen readers are well aware that Laura and I are in Santiago, Chile for a few months to study Spanish, and thus we were right here when Saturday morning's severe earthquake occurred. This off-topic post is for those readers interested in more details from our experiences during and since the quake.
A few thoughts on the media and how deeply disappointed we've been by coverage of the quake here: It took two days for most media outlets to distinguish what happened here in Santiago from the more seriously damaged towns of Concepcion, Talca and other areas to the south.

Some news stories contained disturbing inaccuracies: an example that stands out in our minds was a Reuters story from a Saturday that mischaracterized Santiago as severely damaged. Another example: CNN-USA reported late Saturday morning that Santiago was without power, but in direct contrast to CNN's claim, one of the employees at our Spanish language school here in Santiago was in his office at the time watching that report on a live feed from his computer!

In reality, power was back on for most of the buildings in Providencia relatively quickly, within four or five hours. I guess a reporter from Atlanta who didn't check his facts must know better than the people on the ground here.

And because earthquake stories are always accompanied by obligatory photos of rubble and destroyed buildings, many people back home received the deeply inacurate impression that there was severe devastation here in Santiago.

The real story was how amazingly well Santiago weathered what turned out to be one of the most powerful earthquakes in history. The damage here was trivial, given the size of the city (Santiago's population is some 6 million) and the severity of the quake.

We heard that a bridge and a parking garage collapsed in the city, and a very old church right here in Providencia had half of its cupola collapse. Otherwise, damage was shockingly limited. We took a walk around town the day after the quake and saw a few broken windows and shattered street lamps, and some damage to the facades of a few buildings.

If we hadn't lived through the quake the night before, we'd have thought that a strong storm had hit and nothing more. You'd never guess that one of history's most powerful earthquakes had just struck. And the fact that our brains were still ratlled and scrambled from the night before made the lack of damage seem surreal.

However, the truly severe damage was in communities some 6-7 hours' drive south of here, in smaller cities such as Concepcion and Talca. Also there were some coastal communities that received a double-whammy from both the quake and quake-related ocean swells. These communities are where your thoughts, prayers and assistance should go, not Santiago.

Keep in mind: Chile is a really long and skinny country--in fact, the distance between the northernmost and southernmost points of Chile approaches the distance between New York and California. Fortunately, over the past day or so, most of the major news outlets apparently consulted Google Maps, got their crash courses in Chilean geography, and have since straightened out their stories.

One final thought: If you think this country is like Haiti or like many of the poorer countries in Central or South America, think again. Chile is a relatively rich country, with GDP per capita in the top third globally (GDP per capita here is more the ten times Haiti's in fact). Further, this country has building codes and infrastructure that rival the most advanced cities of Europe and North America.

That's why a earthquake that was 500 times the power of Haiti's quake caused surprisingly little damage--despite the fact that it struck a huge and densely populated city. I don't think it's an exaggeration to call that a miracle.

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Leslie said...

Dan, I read an article that said one of the major factors in rating an earthquake is how large an area that experiences it, and they said that Haiti's earthquake was actually more violent but over a much smaller area, hence the lower richter number.

CNN news was obviously panning the same bridge shot repeatedly. Also, CNN didn't distinguish between the cities at first, but the Spanish stations here in Dallas did. They were running Chilean news feeds and were much better than CNN. So that's what I watched

Mike Goldsman said...

Plus, from what I understand, many other factors affect the severity - such as the angle of the movement, the type of ground affected, etc. The worst situation is when buildings are on top of landfill, which tends acts like a liquid during a quake. There are a lot of buildings in this situation in San Fran and Tokyo.

J.N. Urbanski said...

Thanks, Dan. This is why I love blogging: you get some real news. Glad you're OK.

Diane said...

Glad you are OK! Same media stuff happened here after the Loma Prieta quake. It looked like the whole city had crumbled. Media likes to show rubble.

And it's not the fact that Chile is rich that helps (although that's part of it) as that it (along with the US and New Zealand) have the best and toughest seismic codes in the world. They lean much more towards shear walls, and we to moment frames, but both are stringent and tough. It shows what good building codes can do.

Unknown said...

hi Dan- I don't know you, but perhaps I might in 2 wks or so if we end up at Escuela Fronteras. =) The school directed me to your blog. I am hoping you can provide me with a non-school, non-US media perspective of whether or not we should come to Santiago in 2 wks or decide to travel to another less-shaky latin american country. our plan was 2 wks in SAntiago then weekend trips to Valparaiso and wine country and 1 wk in Patagonia hiking. I am pretty well convinced Santiago's infrastructure will be in enough tact to navigate in a couple wks from now. My biggest hesitation now is whether or not we can smoothly travel south. we only have 3 wks, so hate to waste any days waiting on delayed or canceled buses, etc. We had planned to take a bus to Patagonia. We are wondering if a) long distance buses are still running south on a regular basis b)the main highway/interstate roads are still in tact to travel south??? c) On another note, have you been to Valpo, wine country or Patagonia? Do you have recs on where to stay or focus our energy? There is so much down in Patagonia- I'm finding it overwhelming to figure out which area to focus on. thanks for your insights. Feel free to suggest websites, other people to talk to, etc. Best, Beth

Daniel said...

Beth, I don't consider Santiago to be shaky at all. In fact, this city has nearly returned to normal, with the exception of some buildings lacking power and (as I've described) minor damage to some buildings.

From what I understand, traveling south will be difficult. There has been some damage to the roads, but I don't know the details or the extent of the damage.

I'm told, however, that the northbound roads are fine. There is a lot to see in the north of Chile, and this time of year the weather is almost guaranteed to be better in the north too. Thus I would suggest that you table your plans to go south and concentrate on visiting points north.

One other issue to consider is the airport. There was damage to the International terminal, and right now I'm hearing it is difficult to fly into the country from other countries. But I am guessing that Chile has an enormous incentive to get its airport up and running and should do so in a matter of days. But that's a subject you'll want to do your own due diligence on, since I'm not directly conversant on the subject.

Good luck, and if you want to discuss these issues with me any further, contact me at my email address (you can find it in my Google profile).


Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for sharing your impressions and thoughts! As you said: news can be intriguing wrong!

Keep on writing!


Charmian @Christie's Corner said...

Glad you're safe.

As others point out, there are many factors affecting an earthquake's severity. Regardless, Chilean building standards played a major role in saving lives.

It's sad this story isn't getting adequate or accurate coverage. Thanks for updating us.

Daniel said...

Marisa, yes, disturbing how news can be way off and misleading. My view is that newspapers should run all corrections on their front page... it would be an incentive for them to get it right the first time.

Charmian, thanks for the positive vibes. Glad you're reading.