Hope amidst the rubble

April 2, 2010, 12:51 a.m.

In the early morning of February 27, 2010, at 3:34 a.m. Chilean time, the slumbering inhabitants of the city of Concepción awoke to the tremors of an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8. The tremors rippled along the ground, leaving devastation and catastrophe in their wake, as buildings and bridges toppled all the way to the city of Santiago, 325 kilometers away from Concepción.

“When we came back to the city, my house didn’t have electricity for three days,” recalled Katherine Donner ’11, who was studying at the Stanford in Santiago program when the earthquake hit. “I was staying with a host family with four kids, who were supposed to start school on Monday, but all school was postponed for a week. Universities, elementary schools, high schools, all of them.”

On the night of February 27, Donner and 11 other students were staying in cabañas in La Serena, a beachside city six hours north of Santiago. Because of their removed distance, the earthquake’s reverberations were very faint and went unnoticed by all but two members of the group.

“I actually slept through it!” recalled Donner.

The students found out about the full catastrophe through the iPhone of Cameron Holt ’12, whose parents warned the students to abandon the beach as soon as possible in case of a tsunami onslaught, catalyzed by the monstrous earthquake. At 5:30 a.m., still shaking sleep from their eyes, the 12 Stanford students trudged the half hour walk to the bus station in the middle of La Serena to journey away from a tsunami that never arrived.

When they arrived in Santiago, the sight that greeted them was starkly different to that of the scarcely changed town of La Serena. Rubble was strewn all over the streets as houses had crumbled to the ground, and roofs and ceilings lay around the neighborhoods.

“We were staying in Las Condes, which is a much nicer area of Santiago, and the buildings there were pretty much all stable,” remembered Donner. “There were a couple of old churches that got really damaged, but overall everyone was fine. Then in the outskirt cities like Lo Prado, the houses collapsed on the inside, so some of them looked fine on the outside, but on the inside the walls had collapsed.”

The students joined a group that operates in the spirit of Habitat for Humanity called “Un Techo para Chile” (A Roof for Chile). As volunteers, they took the metro up to Lo Prado, an area is dire need of aid, to offer their services.

Stanford students met and befriended throngs of local high school and college students who were free from school for a week who also joined the relief effort.

“I know a lot of folks in the Stanford community are worried about us down here in Santiago, and it would be great to show them another image of Chile than what they’ve been seeing on the news,” wrote Aidan Dunn ’11, another student studying in Santiago, as quoted in the Stanford Dish.

The community came together to support one another, both physically and emotionally. During work breaks, games of soccer (or fútbol in Chile) with the local children broke out, uniting both volunteers and victims. Families would stop by the workers’ stations and drop off liters of Coca-Cola bottles and plenty of fruit and water to show their appreciation.

The volunteers’ main task was to clear the rubble from the street and put it in giant dumpsters. Using shovels, they continued working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by the end of the day they were covered in debris and dust. By witnessing one family beginning to rebuild their original house, the group came to understand why the buildings had collapsed in the first place.

“It was basically plywood,” Donner said. “It was no wonder that they weren’t withstanding in the first place–they weren’t built to last. The people in the area just don’t have the money or infrastructure to build good houses.”

Stanford engineering professor Eduardo Miranda traveled to both Haiti and Chile to compare the damage inflicted by the earthquakes in both countries. As an engineer, his concern was in analyzing the results of both disasters and understanding the implications for building construction in both locations. In his point of view, Chile’s buildings were fairly well protected from earthquakes, especially compared to those of Haiti.

“In Chile, the biggest lesson is the success of earthquake resistant design,” said Miranda in an interview with the Stanford University News. “This earthquake shows us how structures that have been designed according to current codes are capable of sustaining earthquakes without collapse, protecting the lives of occupants.”

Not all of the buildings in the Santiago area, however, were built to current codes, as the Stanford students discovered. Though the death toll of 452 Chileans cannot compare to the 220,000 deaths in Haiti, it nevertheless remains a sizeable number.

The damage and aftermath of the earthquake continues to blight the country, particularly affecting the airport, which is vital to the economy of Chile. The terminal is a mere cluster of white tents, and passengers must wait for their planes outside.

Despite the horrific nature of the Chilean earthquake, it nevertheless inspired great feelings of camaraderie both within and beyond Chile.

“Afterwards it was a really cool thing to see the whole country come together,” Donner said. “There was writing on the buses that said “Fuerte Chile” (Strong Chile) and “Vamos Chile” (Let’s Go, Chile) and everyone hung up a Chilean flag. Even in Buenos Aires there were flyers about helping Chile, so the effort was all over South America.”

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