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From Santiago: One Week After the Earth Moved

Read correspondent Connie McCabe's first Chile dispatch here, and her second dispatch here.

Just over one week ago the earthquake—and we all know what earthquake I'm talking about—woke me up in the middle of the night. As reported, everything rattled, but nothing broke. A few picture frames toppled over and all seven perfume bottles fell, but they landed not on the marble floor but atop cushy piles of socks and stacks of t-shirts in the bureau drawers that were opening and closing with the lurching of the house. Some of us are lucky. Ridiculously lucky.

Five days later, on Thursday, it was my alarm clock chiming me awake at 3:30. Not because I had to get to work, but because my husband and stepson were setting off for Lebu, a small coastal town that straddles the Lebu River in the region of Bio Bio, about 90 miles south of Concepcion. Here, the earth jerked and cracked at its most violent 8.8, and most houses, made of wood panels and corrugated tin roofs, writhed and creaked along with it.

Twenty minutes later, the Pacific, which had been displaced 30 miles below its surface, rose, filled the bay and overpowered the river, forcing it—for the first time in history—to flow in reverse. Bunches of fishing boats that had been tied together on either side of the mouth of the river were dislodged, and more than half of them propelled upriver. Inexplicably they ended up beyond the bridge that most of the 20-meter long painted wood vessels are too big to clear. In the darkness, the Pacific retreated with a vengeance, sucking the river and one elder fisherman and his wife into the sea. The river had been reduced to a fraction of its original size. Now it was a creek, and stuck in its muddy remains, some 50 traumatized fishing boats, scattered and skewed helter-skelter.

No siren or alarm screamed any type of tsunami warning the night of the quake, but this town is made up of a few thousand retired coalminers (the Victoria de Lebu mine closed in May 2008) and fishermen, men who literally work in the earth and with the ocean. They knew. By foot or by car, everyone from the flat, ocean-fronting stretches of Lebu—a couple thousand houses—scrambled in the foggy darkness up the forested slopes to higher ground. The sound of purpose, hurried footsteps and shouts of assistance to neighbors, gave way to the sound of horror: boats thrashing and smashing against one another. Those who were there say it was a haunting, aberrant sound, like that of a car accident, heightened by the fact that no one could see what was happening.

Ivan, my husband, had worked on a project down south for a couple years with Hugo, a mining engineer in Lebu. So we called to check on him the day of the quake. We were having the usual big, bountiful Saturday lunch. Hugo wasn’t. He, his wife Monica, their four kids and all from Lebu were still huddled together among the pines on the hill waiting for the ocean to bring the river back.

Authorities had advised all in the area to remain on the hill, and return to their homes only long enough to grab essentials. Hugo had gone down to his house and right back up with a little food, clothes (11-year-old Hector had fled wearing shorts and flip-flops) and a tent. Water and electricity were down in the whole region; phone service was sketchy.
We talked to almost everyone we know in Chile that day, and we heard stories of lost children, razed houses, broken bones and broken hearts. Even here, in our undamaged home, the pain and panic were palpable. When the ground, the very foundation we live on, moves with the force that it did, it is more than just an earthquake. Once shaken, both physically and by loss, people change. Following the quake, a virtual tsunami of gratitude and goodwill roared through Chile as those with plenty—a warm shower, a bed to sleep in, a cup of coffee to wake up with—began to reach out to those with need. And they did so with a vengeance equal to that of the recently incensed Pacific. Yes, looters were ravaging supermarkets and the country’s image, but even as this happened, Chilean flags were flying and municipalities, schools, companies, banks, and private clubs were rallying and beginning the arduous process of putting the country back together.

Of course, we could have cleaned out our closets and taken a load of unwanted clothes down to the mall where the Red Cross was collecting, but instead we worked with friends and coworkers to pull together a small mountain of food and supplies to take to Hugo and the people of Lebu, a place most of our friends had never heard of. Wednesday, a couple of hours before we were to start loading, the rental car company told us the truck we had reserved had been in an accident and was not available; we had to settle for a smaller model. Small setback. Two friends volunteered to make up the difference and drive as well. Problem solved.

That night we piled up countless bags of rice and beans and flour and sugar, and topped this with layers of blankets, coats, comforters and sweaters. We squeezed in as many diapers as possible and tucked shoes (each, tied with its partner) wherever there was extra space. Finally we added race cars, Barbies and gently worn teddy bears. The truck sagged dubiously under the weight. Ivan talked of a second trip on Sunday to deliver what we couldn’t manage this time. But then Stan, a Swiss transplant who was in Buenos Aires during the earthquake, missing all the earthquake action, offered to tag along as well essentially because, “I don’t have anything better to do”. This, despite reports of assaults and hijackings on the highways, gasoline shortages and roads buckled and broken beyond use.

That same Wednesday in Lebu, authorities reduced what was a red alert to yellow, meaning everyone was cleared to return to their houses with precaution. Many, nevertheless, chose to remain on the hilltop in pop-up camping tents and makeshift shelters made out of blankets, sheets of plastic or mere bundles of branches. Some, like Hugo, returned to their houses, but once there—sweeping up post-quake bits and pieces, no doubt—they were sent scurrying once again, this time with the wail of a tsunami warning. The end-of-summer sun made for a cheerful day, but the siren triggered anxiety, and this led to colliding cars and screams of confusion. Trouble was no one really knew what was going on beyond Lebu. It seemed the world was coming to an end. In addition, no water meant no one had had a shower, and hundreds of aftershocks—many of which were stronger than the quake that made international headlines last week in Taiwan—continued to jangle already frayed nerves.

But it was a false alarm. No second tsunami rolled ashore. Hugo, Monica and his oldest daughter Camila returned to their house. The other three children remained with friends in a house on the hill—just to be on the safe side.

So Thursday, fortified with a supply of salami sandwiches, bananas, and a supersized thermos of Nescafe, Ivan and 17-year-old Henry reversed down the driveway just after 4 a.m. They met up with the rest of the caravan—Andres, Jorge, Cristian and Stan—on the other side of Santiago. There they redistributed some of the weight, including a stash of emergency gasoline and diesel, about 40 gallons in total, a reserve for the tail end of the journey where fuel was not available, the 125 miles between the end of the Pan-American Highway in the city of Los Angeles and Lebu. Then they hit the road. Open tollbooths speeded up the trip, foot-wide crevices and convoluted detours slowed things down. With Cristian riding shotgun and working Twitter, Facebook and Google Earth, the team accumulated a list of people to check on (“Please try to find my 20-year-old niece; no one has heard from her since Friday afternoon….”), and they knew what lay on the road ahead (“We can fill up at the station just beyond Chillan.”).

It was a twelve-hour drive. They reached Lebu just after 4 p.m.. There, they had to decide whether to set up a distribution center at the radio station (Cristian had been communicating with the station manager en route via Twitter) or drive beyond Lebu to families who live in the hills and have no means of getting into town. Government agencies had also finally made it to Lebu that day, and they had started distributing supplies and food. They even rigged up a generator bringing electricity back—with the stipulation that each house use only one single light bulb or risk blowing out the generator and the entire town’s light source. Curfew meant that no one—except the machine gun-wielding military personnel—could be on the streets between 6 p.m. and noon, but Hugo had secured a special permit, half of a piece of notebook paper with a handwritten authorization, stamp and signature from Coronel Ruben Madrid Murua. With paper in hand, Ivan and the crew set out to reach the unreachable. 

Hugo led the convoy to isolated communities on the outskirts of Lebu until darkness settled in, a good five hours later. At each hamlet, the five-car convoy was met with crossed arms and stunned, suspicious expressions. Everyone was bewildered by the fact that a group of strangers would drive all the way from Santiago—and then give things away. But once the goods were unloaded and handed out, the mood changed. When a down comforter was wrapped around the shoulders of a weathered and weary 70-year-old woman, she insisted on giving something in return. They decided on pinecones. The mother of a two-month-old girl gasped when Henry presented her with a stroller. Stocking caps were put on the heads of wide-eyed little boys. Boxes of painkillers were doled out. Cristian, meanwhile, gathered names, phone numbers and personal notes and promised to get in touch with worried relatives and friends in Santiago and elsewhere in Chile. Like the woman with her precious, priceless pinecones, everyone was determined to give something—anything—in return for the unexpected good Samaritanship: tortillas de rescoldo, a type of bread baked, buried with a bunch of hot coals in the sand; wriggling-fresh locos (a mollusk similar to abalone), which were eaten raw on the spot; at least tecito, which is, literally, a little tea.

Sometime after 10 p.m., my boys along with Andres, Jorge, Cristian and Stan parked at Hugo’s house. First they emptied all vehicles, the remains to be divvied up and parceled out from a nearby church parking lot Friday, then they ate a dinner of canned tuna, onions and freshly baked bread and settled in, Jorge on the sofa, the rest atop an assortment of mattresses squeezed into Hugo’s living room. Aftershocks, ironically, rocked them to sleep.

They left Lebu at 7 a.m. Friday and reached Santiago just after 7 p.m. As they moved north, cars and vans and trucks weighed down with supplies rumbled south. Semi after semi from Argentina brandished the Argentinean and Chilean flags together, something, as any South American will tell you, that doesn’t happen very often. Indeed, in just days, help arrived from all over. And all help is help. Our little grassroots effort, of course, was just the tippy top of the iceberg, and I am discouraged by the fact that, despite all the planning and work, in the big picture, what we did really wasn’t that much. But if everyone is doing the same little bit … surely all seemingly overlooked towns and villages have been remembered by someone.

This week in Chile, many people in Lebu are still camping on the high ground; others in their homes, functioning, as crazy as it sounds, with one lonely light bulb. Two more bodies were found, that of an 11-year-old the other of an adult male, both in a warehouse downtown. Here in Santiago, supermarkets ran out of rice, flour, diapers and other staples because people who could shop were shopping for those who couldn’t. The infamous looters in Concepcion were caught, and, after wheeling those plundered plasma TVs and refrigerators to plazas and soccer fields (talk about walk of shame), they were then thrown in jail with double the usual sentence. And just last night, this country of 16 million people coughed up $60 million as part of a 24-hour fundraiser for earthquake relief. Even the survivors on tsunami-throttled island of Juan Fernandez pooled what cash they had in their pockets and wallets and donated $800 to the cause.

Some of us are lucky. Ridiculously lucky. 

Viva, Chile!

Connie McCabe is Travel + Leisure's Latin America correspondent.

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