Every place in the world has its own special terrifying natural event that will completely uproot the fabric of existence every once in awhile.
In Ohio, it’s tornadoes. In southeastern USA, it’s hurricanes. In Alaska, it’s snow and ice for 8 months and grizzly bears.
But down here? In Chile, the natural disaster of choice is earthquakes.
When I first moved to Chile, I didn’t really know a lot of earthquakes happened down here. That was mostly due to my own ignorance. But then as time wore on, especially once I moved to Valparaiso, I would hear comments like, “Did you feel that tremor last night?”. And I’d be confused. Because I never felt any tremors.
They usually occurred at night. Strong enough to feel and comment on — for most people at least. But I slept through them.
In retrospect, this doesn’t surprise me. I hit Snooze roughly 8 times every morning without knowing it, and I sleep so deeply I always had a sneaking suspicion I could sleep through the ground moving.
But I felt gypped. If I live in earthquake land, I want to at least recognize that something is happening with the ground and seismic and tectonic and stuff.
You know what they say…Ask and you shall receive.
Approximately three months ago, I started to feel tremors. And it is not as fun and thrilling as I thought it might be.
It is terrifying. It is counter-intuitive. It is completely jarring. It is a cold fear that creeps across your entire body, starting in the pit of your stomach and going in all directions at once. It is a horrifying realization of ‘Where…the hell…do I go?”.
And to be perfectly honest, I still haven’t even felt a big earthquake. All those feelings right there? That’s just from tremors.
The first tremor I ever consciously acknowledged was during the day — about 5-7 seconds in length, enough for me and all my roommates to run into the common area and scream “OKAY, NOW WHAT?!”. That was about 3 months ago. But about three weeks ago, they started increasing in frequency, and all at night, around midnight or 1am. There were a couple small ones. At this point, nothing to get ruffled about.
But then about a week ago, there was a big tremor. And when I say big I mean the thought crossed my mind that this would probably be the time I had to go crouch in the doorway and crap my pants like all my Chilean friends had instructed me (well, they instructed me on the doorway part, at least). I was prepared for more, like let’s get ready to hear glass crashing and steel warping because the earth isn’t just clearing its throat, it’s vomiting.
That little tremor on March 6th, 2014 turned out to register 5.3 on the Richter scale. Nowhere near the earthquake that hit Chile in 2010 (8.8) or in 1960 in Valdivia (9.5, also the number one earthquake since like, the earth was born).
Let’s just restate the obvious: I cannot imagine what either of those feel like.
The tremor on March 6th inspired me to write a goodbye email to my family, just in case something happened and they never heard from me again. I mean, hey, if enormous seismic activity were to strike three days after that and they never heard from me again, I’d be happy I had the foresight to send them a little bit of love before I was gulped into the earth.
But, that hasn’t happened. And though it could, I’m not sure it will. Valparaiso is pretty dang prepared for this sort of stuff.
Every place is prepared for their own natural disasters, after all. While tornadoes would have a field day with everyone here, in Ohio we got that covered — BASEMENTS. But no basements in Valparaiso! Yet if you turn the tables — earthquakes in Ohio? — you’re screwed. Buildings aren’t prepared for that sort of movement the way they are here in Chile. These buildings are BUILT to sway, rock, tremble, move and otherwise resist up to something pretty high on the Richter Scale.
After all, my house is still here, and it’s way older than 2010. It survived the effects of that 8.8 earthquake, and the cracks in my kitchen prove it. There was a battle — but the building won.
CHILEAN STORY TIME: A good friend of mine, a porteno (i.e. from Valparaiso) named Bernardo, has lived here his whole life — and lived through the 2010 earthquake personally. I pestered him with questions recently, fascinated to know what an 8.8 earthquake might feel like compared to the measly 5.3 sneeze from the other night.
Bernardo told me that he remembers being woken up in the night, and his first thought was that it was just a tremor — like they usually are. But it didn’t stop after the normal amount of time. And it kept getting stronger. And stronger. And then he got out of bed, and noticing the floor was undulating. Like the waves in the sea. His ears were filled with the sound of creaking, grinding, crunching. Light bulbs started to explode.
I.E. TIME TO GET OUT.
My thought in response to an earthquake used to be get the hell out of the house, go outside and plead helplessly into the sky, but according to Bernardo this is not the recommended course of action. He says it’s best to go for doorways, but if on a higher floor of the building, GO DOWN — and then to a doorway. That way, if roofs cave in and things otherwise collapse on top of you, the doorway protects you.
That night, he was on a higher floor of a multi-level building. So he bolted for the stairs. And on his way downstairs, he saw the staircase moving back and forth in the air, which he says looked like the stairs were dancing. Bold and fearless (I’m imagining him like a superhero in his pajamas at this point), he careened (or perhaps hopped like a character in a video game, because this is what it’s sounding like by now) down the staircase, crouched in the doorway at ground level, and waited.
It finally calmed down. And once it did, the next phase of events began: the streetlights flickered out, water lines began to explode. And what remained for him was the moon, which seemed to hang low and huge, enough to illuminate the night even without electricity.
But the earthquake protocol doesn’t end there. That night, Bernardo stayed at his house (with no light, and no water). But people in other areas of the city — specifically, closer to the sea — were abandoning their houses and fleeing upward into the hills.
Because, you know, that’s just one of those things you have to think about after an earthquake on the ocean coast.
These Chileans are seasoned veterans when it comes to earthquakes. The tremors that make me write goodbye emails to my family are they same ones they laugh at and roll over to go back to sleep.
Though it’s just part of really living in a region.
I think back to plenty of severe thunderstorms in Ohio, evenings that went from sunny to pitch black in ten minutes, the heavy weight of humidity and pending doom in the air, something close to funnel clouds in the distance, and me, sitting on the front porch watching it all with a glass of wine and enjoying the cool breeze of the rainfall while the tornado siren wails tirelessly in the background.
Maybe Chileans there would be wondering about basement protocol.
But we Ohioans know what’s scary and what’s not. We know to wait for that unnerving stillness in the air.
It’s all about where you grow up.