Santiago program hit by quake

March 1, 2010, 1:05 a.m.

CORRECTION: In this story, it was reported that no student had been farther south than Santiago when the earthquake struck. According to reports, Aidan Dunn ’11 and Claire Kouba ’11 were in Southern Chile. Both are safe and accounted for.

Less than two days after a magnitude 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile, Chris Rurik ’11 sat in a small café in the nation’s capital and glanced out across the once bustling streets and parks.

“This is the quietest I’ve ever seen the streets and parks of Santiago,” he said. “I can see less than 15 people from where I’m sitting. Normally I’d be able to see hundreds just in this little area of the park.”

The apartment of Stanford student Chris Rurik '11 in Chile's capital, Santiago, following an earthquake this weekend. Measured at 8.8 on the Richter Scale, the event is the fifth-largest earthquake ever recorded. (Courtesy of Chris Rurik)

It was the calm after the proverbial storm. At 3:34 a.m. local time on Saturday, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake–the fifth-largest quake ever recorded–struck off the coast of Chile, forcing President Michelle Bachelet to declare a “state of catastrophe.”

Yesterday the Chilean government announced the death toll had risen to 708. The quake has also displaced more than two million people across the country.

Rurik was one of 21 Stanford students in the Chilean capital with the Bing Overseas Program (BOSP). He was asleep in his host family’s apartment when the quake struck and rumbled for a minute and a half.

When the shaking stopped, he said he immediately took to the streets with his host mother and brother to search for the family’s relatives, who could not be contacted because electricity and telephone lines had been knocked out. Rurik’s host family’s grandmother was later located.

Charles Zaffaroni ’10 thought that the earthquake was just one of the mild tremors that Chile experienced “every week.”

“We’ve experienced a whole bunch of earthquakes since we’ve been here and it started out like that too, so I thought I could sleep through it,” he said. “But then it really started shaking and everything fell off the shelves and I started to get to the doorway.”

Santiago, 200 miles from the quake’s epicenter, sustained serious damage from the quake, with local media reporting that about 12 people had died. State officials announced that three hospitals in the Chilean capital had been affected, while the Santiago airport was partially opened yesterday despite damage to a passenger terminal.

Rurik also reported damage to two local apartment buildings in his area that were “on the verge of collapse” and that the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the city’s fine arts museum, was also in “bad shape.”

Further south, however, closer to the quake’s epicenter, the damage was much worse. Collapsed bridges, flattened homes and overturned cars were just some of the many images illustrating the awesome power of the quake, which Greg Beroza, a Stanford geophysics professor, estimated to be 500 times stronger than the earthquake that devastated Haiti last month.

In Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city 70 miles from the epicenter, apartment buildings were ripped apart and rescuers are still trying to pull people from the rubble, the Associated Press reported Sunday. Looters had also taken to the streets, reportedly taking everything from canned milk to microwave ovens–those desperate for food and water combining with those trying to take advantage of the chaos.

Bachalet said the majority of the deaths–nearly 550–had occurred in the Maule region, adjacent to the province where Concepción is.

Fortunately, no Stanford students or faculty had gone farther south than Santiago for the weekend. According to Ivan Jaksic, the director of the Bing program in Chile, a group of 13 had traveled north to La Serena for the weekend, while the remaining students stayed in Santiago.

Jaksic, who was “overwhelmed” by the quake while sleeping in his 16th-floor apartment, explained that while the city was without power for several hours, well-crafted emergency plans allowed the program to contact all its staff and faculty as soon as electricity was restored. By Saturday afternoon, the University was able to contact and account for all students and faculty in Chile.

Before contact had been established, however, Rurik, Zaffaroni and Alyssa Baldocchi ‘11, speaking over Skype less than 16 hours after the quake struck, expressed their concern that one student, Lyla Johnston ’11, had gone south to do research for her senior thesis. It was later affirmed that Johnston had stayed in Santiago for the weekend, suffering injuries after jumping from her third-floor balcony to escape her building during the quake.

According to a Facebook post relayed by Rurik, Johnston is in the hospital “in good spirits” but with pelvis and vertebrae injuries.

No other injuries were reported among Stanford students or faculty. The Stanford facilities in Santiago sustained minimal damage, according to Jaksic.

The earthquake, however, did provide a major scare for those involved. Resident faculty member and Freeman Spogli consulting professor Thomas Fingar had experienced quakes in California and Taiwan, but none “this strong or of such duration.”

“Our fourth floor apartment was pitching and rolling like a small boat in rough seas,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Daily, then went on to describe how he and his wife, Orlene, hung on to one another while standing in a hallway doorframe. His apartment sustained minimal damage from the quake and the two were able to escape unharmed.

While the main risk has passed, much of Chile lies in a state of ruin as aftershocks continue to shake the nation. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that at least 90 significant aftershocks–those that register a magnitude greater than 4.0 on the Richter scale–had occurred since the original earthquake.

Rurik was driven from his bed yesterday by one such aftershock.

“This morning at about 8:30, I was woken by probably the strongest aftershock yet,” he said. “I was out of bed, into my pants and ready to run in record time. But it didn’t last very long.”

The large amount of seismic activity, while surprising at first, is not particularly uncommon to Chile, said Beroza, who is the deputy director of the Southern California Earthquake Center.

“Chile is one of the world’s most active seismic zones, where the Nazca Plate is running into the South American plate,” he said.

In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the largest ever recorded, occurred off the coast of Chile, causing a tsunami that killed about 200 people in Japan some 22 hours after the initial disaster. An 8.1-magnitude earthquake also hit Chile in 1985.

While the earthquakes seemed evenly spaced in a span of 25 years, Beroza saw little connection in the timing of the quakes.

“I don’t read into any of that at all,” he said. “Other than they have a lot of very big earthquakes.”

Norm Sleep, a geophysics professor, believed that Saturday’s earthquake could have been related to a similar quake that Charles Darwin witnessed in 1835 on his documented trips to South America. He said that “strain and quake threat have been building up on [the] fault and waiting to happen” since that occurrence and estimated that “10 meters of slip in a matter of minutes” was the main reason for the quake.

Another concern for scientists throughout Saturday was the possible tsunamis triggered by the earth’s movement Saturday. Warnings from Hawaii to Russia went out warning residents near the coasts to prepare themselves and find higher ground.

While waves led to at least four dead and 11 missing on islands off of Chile, evacuation efforts in other areas proved to be mere precautionary measures. Wave heights did not reach the expected levels; in Half Moon Bay, Calif., the 18-inch change in water height at low tide led to little noticeable difference, according to Sleep.

Back in Chile, however, the country will be left trying to pick up the pieces as small tremors continue to cause unrest. Aid has been offered from the United Nations and President Obama has pledged the United States’ support to the South American nation.

On campus, several South American student groups have banded together to create the Web site www.stanfordchile.org, where a percent of proceeds will be donated to relief services in Chile.

For the students in Santiago, however, it is a matter of restoring their everyday lives as the quarter comes to a close.

“Tomorrow we go to school like normal,” Rurik said. “Hopefully stores will start to re-open and life in the city will return to normal.”

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