27 Feb 2010

Comparing the quakes in Chile and Haiti

When I heard about the massive earthquake to hit Chile this morning, I felt like the wind had been punched out of me. Happening so soon after one devastated Haiti, the comparisons came thick and fast.

When I heard about the massive earthquake to hit Chile this morning, I felt like the wind had been punched out of me. Happening so soon after one devastated Haiti, the comparisons came thick and fast.

I’ve lived and worked as a journalist in both countries and visited Haiti again after the earthquake in January, a fragile state made more fragile by nature’s wrath, a place that really didn’t know what had hit it when the earthquake did. Chile, by comparison, is used to earthquakes.

I don’t make that comment to take anything away from the magnitude of the suffering and the scale of the experience suffered by the people there.

But I cling on to that thought as I think of the friends I made during my time there in 2005 and 2006 when I worked as a freelance journalist.

I recall travelling north through the country, past Valdivia, the closest major town to the 1960 earthquake – the worst of the 20th century.

The volcanoes and lakes that pepper this area of outstanding beauty form the central core of this narrow land between the Andes and the Pacific.

Threading my way along immaculately preserved modern roads, I passed the vineyards of the fertile central valley that produce some of South America’s best wine, to the city of Chillan, where a cross – towering above the city’s modern cathedral – stands as a monument to the thousands killed in an earthquake in 1939 that destroyed 90 per cent of the city.

Unlike Haiti, where most people I spoke with have no experience of an earthquake and no idea of what to do in an earthquake, Chileans are well-versed at what to do.

There’s a well-organised Chilean national emergencies office which coordinates responses by the civil defence, fire services and medics to events like this.

When I lived in Haiti, I stayed in the Hotel Montana. It was destroyed in the earthquake of 12 January. When I lived there, I didn’t even know that earthquakes could happen in Haiti.

But in Santiago, it was very different. Like many residents of the Chilean capital, I lived in a high rise building in the shadow of the Andes mountains.

On the twelfth floor, I rarely thought about earthquakes, even when tremors shook our building.
I’d previously also lived in Peru, where earthquakes often occur and, living in a seventh floor apartment, I slept with an emergency bag and a pair of shoes by my bed and can’t remember the number of times I practised how quickly I could run down the stairs.

For some reason, I felt safer in Chile. I experienced small tremors that made my cupboard doors open and my crockery rattle, but little more.

I’ve no idea how I’d have reacted had I been in Chile during this earthquake. I know even earthquake buildings have their limit.

Chile and Haiti. Two countries. Two earthquakes. two tragedies and apparently two vastly different outcomes.

One, Chile: a relatively wealthy nation, one of the world’s most seismically active, where young and old are educated in responding to earthquakes and the architecture is built to bend and wobble, but hopefully not collapse.

And the other: Haiti, a desperately poor nation, with little understanding of even the basics of earthquake responses and coordination and even less decent architecture to protect its people, I can’t help but compare the two.

Still even earthquake proof buildings have a limit and, even though Chile is a wealthy country with many modern buildings constructed after devastating previous earthquakes, that’s probably little comfort for many who aren’t yet able to reach their family, friends and loved ones.

People like my friend Carola. She is desperately trying to glean news of her family. She is from Chillan, her sister, brother-in-law and nephew live in Concepcion, but she fears they may have been in a beach area even closer to the epicentre and for now she still can’t reach them.

By Hannah Storm