Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Of Building Codes & Unequality

The madness seems to be under control. Yesterday a department store was set on fire in Concepción by looters, but it seems the 14-hour curfew (from 8:00 PM to noon) worked its charm. Concepción looked like a war zone yesterday. It was the most difficult day since the earthquake on every level.

"When the soldiers showed up the entire neighborhood walked out to greet them with applause. We were desperate." My cousin's friend, who lives in Concepción.

I still think the government took too long to send in military forces to the disaster zones. Chileans have a bit of a trauma when it comes to the military. Ever since the 1973 coup, seeing armed soldiers on the street provides more fear than calm. The current government is socialist, and opposed the dictatorship and the coup, so part of me understands why they're scared of reaching out to the army. But given the circumstances those past differences should've been forgotten.

On Saturday afternoon, hours after the earthquake, government officials announced that the situation was under control and that we didn't need international help. "But thanks anyway." There are better ways of reasuring people, I think. Arrogance isn't one of them, especially when you take back what you said a couple of days later. Yes, everyone's allowed to make mistakes, but for a government official to make asumptions just hours after a natural disaster is reckless. It's been four days since the earthquake, and every day we discover new devastated areas.

And here's what I'm trying to get at: the devastated areas are poor. Santiago is wealthier, and the buildings are still standing (99.9% of them, others have cracks) because of strict building codes. But down south not every construction follows those codes. Most people built their houses themselves, or lived in old houses that didn't follow building codes. We're discovering towns that were completely swept by tsunamis. There's mud everywhere, no running water, no food. These aren't big cities with concrete buildings supported by steel skeletons. These are shore towns. Places tourists like to visit, camping sites. Vulnerable towns. Even Concepción, Chile's second biggest city, was in chaos yesterday. The destruction is astounding; the need for food and water is paramount.
Building in Santiago, practically unscathed.

Chile is one of the most stable economies in Latin America, but the unequality is also significant. It really surprised me how the authorities seemed to overlook this when they first assessed the situation. I really don't have the energy to criticize the government now. Time for criticism will come later. Now it's time to help.

As I write this, people are trapped in a collapsed building in Concepción, and the aftershocks have trapped the rescue team trying to find survivors. Talcahuano, a port town right next to Concepción, has containers everywhere. They were swept in by the waves. There's mud, oil, and rubble everywhere. "Everything stains", a local woman said. There's no running water, no power, no food.

We DO need help, as much as we can get. You can go here and make your donation to the institution of your liking.

Things are much better in Santiago. I used the subway and the elevator yesterday. Still feeling aftershocks, but not as many. You know when you get off a boat and your entire body still feels as if you were floating? It's a similar feeling. It's like being earthsick. Four days later and it seems the ground hasn't stopped moving, it's unbelievable. The pain, empathy, and frustration grow each day. But so does the relief of knowing everyone I love is safe.

I'm going to volunteer as soon as it's possible. First we have to rescue survivors, clean up, and get organized. We'll rise once again, one brick at a time.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Aftershocks

Twenty-four hours later and we've had countless aftershocks, 90 of them over 5.0, some of them 6.1, even.

On Saturday afternoon, I rode my bike to work. For some reason I grabbed my Chilean flag and wore it over my backpack. I needed to feel like a part of all this. I needed to feel that I loved my country in good times and in bad. Reading this makes it seem so fucking dumb, but it was comforting. I didn't even notice if people saw the flag while I rode down the street. It wasn't about giving a show, it's just something I needed to do.

I got to the office, finally. It had power and Internet, which was a relief. I charged my phone and sat down with my laptop. I surfed the web anxiously, and I slowly got drenched with what was happening. An earthquake, a real earthquake. I read an article on fox news that compared our earthquake with Haiti's. The headline: "Chile Was Prepared for Earthquake, Haiti Wasn't." Yes, we're a seismic country. We have quite possibly the world's worst location, leaving us vulnerable to earth movements and tsunamis. We know this, and we have prepared accordingly throughout the years. But it's still an earthquake. Yes, Haiti was ill-prepared for an earthquake, and Haiti's economy isn't as stable as Chile's, and it will take them much longer to bounce back from such a disaster. We haven't lost as many lives as Haiti, but a life is still a life. I know news departments have to draw such comparisons so people who are far away can get an idea of what's going on, but when you are right here in the disaster zone and you read those reports you feel a tad insulted. You feel like they're being cold, but the thing is, they have to be. They have to remain neutral. I'm perfectly aware of this, but right now I can't deal with it. I'm trying to avoid international news channels because of this.

Last night at work my friend Claudio and I spent hours making each other laugh. And we laughed maniacally. One minute we were talking about how terrible we felt, and how frustrating it was to not being able to do something to stop all the madness, and the next we were holding our stomachs from laughing so hard. We wanted to cry, but we ended up laughing, and it was cathartic. We needed to laugh to make it through the night. We needed to feel something else than pain.

I got to work at 6:00 PM and didn't leave until 7:00 AM of the next morning. I worked through the night so I could spend Sunday with my family. The news were on the whole time. Every time I was left alone I felt my eyes tearing up, then someone would walk in or I'd go see someone and we'd laugh as if nothing had happened.

I got home and as soon as I stepped into my apartment another aftershock hit. I'd been feeling them through the night, but this one was harder. When I woke up on Sunday afternoon I turned on the news and learned that everything was much worse than the previous day. Curfew in Concepción. Entire cities destroyed; boats in the middle of the street, the aftermath of gigantic waves drowning Talcahuano, a port city. Over 700 lives lost. Thousands of people missing. No water, no power. Panic taking over, people rushing into supermarkets and taking absolutely everything they found, from food to flatscreen TVs. What the fuck? Where the fuck is the army? Why didn't the government call the army? On the front page of the paper it read loud and clear, "ARMY WAITS FOR INSTRUCTIONS". In the earthquake of 1985 the army took over immediately. Yes, it was during the dictatorship, so naturally they were in charge the whole time. But what the present government didn't realize is that the army is better equipped to deal with natural disasters. Chile is not a war-loving country; the military isn't for fighting. They are trained to deal with this. With earthquakes. With extreme situations. They could've rescued so many people, but they will only be active starting Monday at 9:00 AM. They could've done so much in two days. They could've controlled the riots and the escape of prison inmates. They could've looked for survivors. Saturday and Sunday were completely lost to the army, and I'm so fucking pissed about it.

Santiago is pretty much intact in comparison to the rest of the country. The subway is functioning normally, for crying out loud. We faired out much better. "Only" 30 casualties. The power is back, at least on my street. Everything seems back to normal. The aftershocks keep coming. The ground never stops moving, it seems. I'm not even scared of the earth movements. At one point during the earthquake I couldn't stand on my own feet and I had to hold on to the doorframe. I was convinced that the building would collapse, and I didn't panic at all. That's not what I fear, that's not the problem right now, and I'm not traumatized because of it. It wasn't the sirens, either, or the sound of glass breaking, or rumbling, or the building shaking so hard it seemed it was about to snap in two, or the fact that it lasted for about two minutes. That's so not it. I'm devastated because of everything else. How many people are trapped as I write this? How many people are starving, or cold, or hungry, or looking for their loved ones? How many people were taken by the waves? How many people lost everything? Jesus Christ, everyone is in pain, and the air feels heavier because of it.

I can't even write without checking every word twice, just to make sure I'm making sense. My head is all over the place, and I desperately need to see my friends and hold them. I feel like a time bomb. If they don't tell us how we can help soon, I'll explode.