April 7, 2010

Chile’s Catastrophe: A Cornellian’s Perspective

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What’s the likelihood of being the only Cornell student studying abroad in Chile during the world’s fifth-largest earthquake? I’ll never be quite sure, but it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting after packing up and leaving for Santiago in February. To be fair, I had been looking for some adventure … just not the kind you’d measure with a seismograph, I guess.

In any case, I woke up to car alarms and dogs barking. Coming from a girl who has slept through hurricane-like storms camping with my family as a kid, let’s just say it takes a lot to wake me up. But something about the way my host mom was shrieking my name as my feet were continually slapping the end of my bed made me realize this wasn’t just a dream — and that I needed to get up and get going quickly.

I’m not sure at what point I realized it was an earthquake, but having lived in northern California for two years suddenly paid off as I immediately knew to run to the doorway of our apartment. (And by run, I mean stumble. The shaking was strong enough to throw you against a wall.) There — as I locked arms with my host parents and their three daughters in an efforts to shield our heads from falling debris — for the first time ever, I felt a strong sense of fear for my own life.

My host family and I safely fled the building after more than three minutes of 8.8 Richter trembling. Luckily, nobody in my neighborhood  — or in my study abroad program, for that matter — was injured. The truth is, Santiago withstood the natural disaster much better than the images shown in mainstream American news would seem to indicate. The majority of the damage occurred in the southern cities — like Concepcion, the next-biggest city — which were closer to the quake’s epicenter. Of course some parts of the Chilean capitol were considerably damaged; as I write this, the Santiago International Airport, for instance, is still operating out of tents in the parking lot due to intense structural damage to the terminals. Likewise, the earthquake disproportionately damaged neighborhoods of lesser affluence more so than the areas where fortunate people like me live in relatively new buildings that follow high levels of seismic code.

When I went to the first class of my study abroad program the following Monday, I think I expected the entire city to be a completely different place after a natural disaster of this size. And yet, the street beggars were still at the bus stops and the ice cream vendors were still braving the heat of the sidewalks. On the metro, everyone just looked the same, nobody had ripped or torn clothing or looked like they had lost everything. Hell, even in the giant department stores every article of clothing was neatly folded and back on the rack. I remember marveling at the apparent lack of evidence of recent record-breaking seismic activity.

Santiago’s recovery from the quake is a testament to what happens after every national tragedy; the morning comes, the sun rises again, and people wake up to start their days and re-start their lives. Even before most people had stopped stocking up on food and flashlights, the focus was already on helping people living to the south — people who were more affected by the quake. Soon the city was overcome by blood drives, food drives, clothing drives, benefit concerts, Chilean flags and inspirational graffiti. Chilean students — still on their summer breaks — offered their time and services, volunteering to do everything from collecting donations outside stores to packing up boxes for convoys headed south. However, when I went to a collection site with a group of other students from my study abroad program, we were politely turned away after offerring to help. “Chile para Chile” wasn’t just a newspaper headline — it was evident in every street.

Obviously things have changed a bit for me since the earthquake. Every aftershock gets my heartrate up. I know where my flashlight is. I try to wear pajamas I wouldn’t mind wearing outside of an evacuated building. But it’s changed my perspective on my experience too. What might have been a big deal to a foreign exchange student like me before the quake — such as getting locked in a tiny bathroom at my school for a half an hour — now literally seems like a walk in the park. The unexpected positive things about this experience (having triplet host sisters, living with a Japanese-Peruvian host family amd hence learning Spanish from Asians, not only purchasing but wearing a fanny pack in public, Cornell basketball advancing to the Sweet 16, being convinced by a group of Argentinean geologists that the cooler nickname of my name is “Floppy” not “Flo,” and discovering the completo, a Chilean hot dog version of the garbage plate) just seem that much cooler in comparison. Although I might not ever use the words “what’s shakin’” as a friendly greeting again, I think that after this experience, I can pretty much handle anything.  RLD

Original Author: Florence Williams