Earthquake in Chile

Eleanor Osborne Santiago

The view of Santiago and its Smog from Cerro San Cristóbal – Eleanor Osborne

Eleanor Osborne writes about the earthquake and tsunami which hit Chile in September.

It was the Chilean writer and academic, Benjamín Subercaseaux who first coined the phrase ‘una loca geografía’, and it was this phrase, though admittedly laden with more expletives, which came to me suddenly as I clutched my second glass of pisco with trembling hands and surveyed the room for the tell-tale signs of an aftershock.


I had been downstairs in an English neighbour’s flat when the ground began to twitch beneath us, and we watched in puzzled silence as the light swayed back and forth. I looked at my three friends on the sofa.


“It’s an earthquake.” said someone, stating the obvious with glee. “Cool!”


I did not share their excitement.


Feeling the earth shudder under you is a most unpleasant feeling, not dissimilar to the sensation of going over a bump in the road when your stomach drops.


But perhaps the most disturbing thing of all was not the feeling of the earthquake but the sound: a low, rumbling, rushing sound like some strange gale heard at a distance, and unlike anything I had ever heard before.


The effects of 8.3 magnitude earthquake which registered 7.4 in Santiago last week, were relatively mild – all things considered. The European and North American headlines screamed devastation, but mere hours after the quake struck all was business as usual in the capital. The worst affected region, Coquimbo, continues to struggle with 262 homes destroyed and thousands more still without electricity or drinking water. However, with a total death toll of 13, the atmosphere is more one of national relief rather than one of mourning. The memories of the apocalyptic events of the 2010 quake are still fresh in people’s minds.


“What do you mean it’s your first earthquake?” asked the Chileans, incredulously, once I had returned to my own flat, a mess of nerves. And I explained, much to their delight that the most extreme natural phenomenon to be encountered back home was particularly thick fog. My rather incoherent explanation of ‘pea-souper’ was mostly lost on a bemused audience.


“You should have been there in 2010”, they said, repeatedly, with a unanimous look of morbid pride. “Now, that was a earthquake.” And they went back to their cooking and conversations as if nothing had happened.


I was still a mess of nerves when the first after-shock hit.


Flor was leaving to buy wine for the birthday supper we were holding that night and, to great hilarity from the Chilean crowd, I abandoned my weak pretence at calm and ran rather too quickly after her; her brother would spend the rest of the night sneaking up behind me, rocking my chair backwards and forwards, and shouting “Terremoto! Terremoto!”.


Historian Rolando Mellafe suggests that exposure to natural disasters has had a profound and formative effect on the Chilean national psyche. For a gringa such as myself, the earthquake and the near-constant after-shocks which continue to rattle windows and wake us up at night, as well as producing the unsettling sensation of suddenly being at sea, have certainly been an extreme insight into the reality of living in this long, thin country with its crazy geography.


At least we can now legitimately apply for Chilean identity.