Thursday, March 4, 2010

Picking up the pieces...

First of all, thank you SO much for all of the support and encouraging words. It's not be an easy time to be in Chile, but reading your emails, Facebook posts, and blog comments has really helped me to stay positive the past few days, and I am very grateful. I have not been able to respond to each and every one, but please know that I read everything with care and it means a lot.

Two days after the earthquake, I went to the grocery store with one of my host sisters and our neighbors across the hall (the ones who had to kick down their door during the quake because they couldn't get it open.) We went relatively early in the day but it was already packed. Armed with large shopping carts and long lists, we elbowed our way through to buy everything from bottled water to roasted chickens. I was impressed by the size of this supermarket - I think I would compare it to a Walmart Supercenter. With this size in mind, now consider that the lines for the cashier spanned the entire store from front to back - it was rather intense.

As official foreign exchange student in residence, I was in charge of maintaining our spot in line, while the others braved the crowded isles to select groceries. The whole affair took about four hours, and was pretty exhausting. By the afternoon, lots of items were running low, as people were understandably stocking up. At this point in time nobody was really sure if and/or when the stores would be restocked. On this day though, the most popular items for purchase were bottled water and coke, diapers, rice, and, of course, avocados.

As I alluded to earlier, Santiago was not as affected as places closer to the epicenter, but evidence of the earthquake lingers in the city. As I walked to class on Monday, I passed a travel agency with a line two blocks long of people trying to secure transportation, either out of the country, or south of here to check on relatives and friends they had not heard from.

Areas of the sidewalk are sectioned off with caution tape so that people are not in danger of falling pieces from crumbling buildings. Piles of rubble litter the streets of older construction. Many sections of the city still did not have electricity and water. It's scary to think about how much worse it is down south.

However, my neighborhood is relatively unscathed. The worst damage I saw here was the ceiling in the lobby of my apartment (see my second post for a photo) and a large shattered window in the lobby of an apartment near here. In Santiago though, some buildings and a parking garage collapsed, and one brand new building in a neighborhood close to here is leaning at a dangerous angle right now. A lot of the time since the quake has been devoted to evacuating people from dangerous structures, but also the people are trying to find someone to blame. Construction companies with buildings devastated in the earthquake (especially the one responsible for that brand new building) are under fire from the citizens and the media for using cheap materials and not constructing buildings according to the seismic code.

The news is also filled with heartbreaking interviews with people in tragic situations. Perhaps the most disturbing images for me were of the brutality of the police force in Concepcion towards people looting stores. I understand that stealing is against the law, but for people who have literally lost everything and who still had not received aid after 3 days. then 4 days, then 5 days, it is clearly out of necessity. Granted, some plasma televisions and other non-essential items are being stolen in the mix, but if more time was spent actually getting essential aid to the victims of this national tragedy instead of tear-gassing desperate people, I think the situation would be a lot better.

Now without access to stores in the south, the streets have turned into a dangerous place because of collapsing structures, but also because of street riots and violence between people fighting over water, food, and clothing. Like the United States after Hurricane Katrina, it is taking the Chilean government a long time to get aid to victims as well as to ask for and accept the help of other countries and the United Nations. The Chilean government also failed to warn many coastal communities and islands of the tsunami danger, which makes a lot of the population question what the authorities are saying. An intense fear has enveloped the communities hit the hardest by the quake, leading to many false alarms about tsunamis, one of which caused the complete evacuation of a marine base.

For a nation surrounded by fault lines, Chile's preparedness and response to this terremoto is surprisingly lackluster. Because of an extended period since a large earthquake, Chileans have forgotten to take basic precautions. My professor addressed an example of this: he told me most Chileans used to go to bed with their keys in the door in case of a quake. In my building, the precious moments it took to get the keys in the door made the difference between waiting out the quake in a doorway, or being trapped in a shaking apartment.

Despite all of this bad news, there is an optimistic story to be told as well. After replenishing their own pantries following the quake, the citizens of Santiago have really stepped up to the plate. Students flood street corners and grocery store entrances ready to take donations of food and water. People with megaphones in the Plaza de las Armas collect money for various relief organizations. The staff for my study abroad program went to the hospital after class to donate blood. My own host family emptied their closets for a clothing drive organized by their former high school! Everyone wants to help in anyway that they can, and the spirit is infectious.

As a group, my fellow students and I are hoping to complete a service project in the south during one of our excursions. We also plan to pool our money to buy water for the donation drives here. On a personal level, I would like to contact student groups at Pittsford Sutherland High School and Cornell University to encourage their support of relief organizations in need of donations such as Cruz Roja (Red Cross) and my personal favorite, Un Techo Para Chile (a Habitat for Humanity type organization.) If you're interested in donating, please access the following websites for online giving: I will try to post alternatives ways to help in the following days.

We are still feeling the aftershocks of the quake. Two actually occured as I was writing this entry. The US Embassy has advised that strong aftershocks are likely to happen in the following weeks, but I like to think that the worst of the seismic activity has already occurred. Either way, my host parents still sleep in the living room, ready to open the apartment door so it doesn't get stuck closed and my backpack of essentials and sneakers are still ready by the door.

My heart goes out to those who are suffering. I continually feel blessed to be safe and healthy. I hope that more relief reaches those in need as soon a possible.

Thanks again for reading - please become a follower!


1 comment:

  1. FLO! I've just been catching up on your posts--I've been thinking about you! I'm so glad you're safe. I know how hard it must be to have experienced/be experiencing everything around you, and I'm sure it will continue to sink in here and there gradually--pretty mindboggling really and incredibly frightening. So heartwarming though to hear about the local activism to help out, sounds like people are really coming together.

    I have so much to say and so much I want to ask you about but I need to catch some zzzs. I hope that all this aside, you have a great gang of students and that you're really enjoying your program thus far! You'll have countless wonderful adventures I KNOW. Take care of yourself and my best wishes for you and all those around you!