February 27, 2010
At the start of the weekend, we piled into the living room, introducing ourselves, looking over the schedule and reviewing the emergency procedures in the event of a fire or earthquake. “Of course, we will care for those who have fears of earthquakes, so do not worry,” a group leader assured the staff. Everybody nodded in solemn understanding. The atmosphere in the room became still and I could see their faces change just slightly. I reasoned that in that few seconds before shifting topics, each person could not help but recall a memory made on February 27, 2010.
Throughout my time in Chile, I’ve had the opportunity to travel three hours north to Santiago and twelve hours south to Chiloé Island, passing through numerous cities and participating in worship with various congregations of the Pentecostal Church of Chile. As we journeyed from the vineyard sector, through winding pine tree and eucalyptus plantations, past miles of grazing sheep and cattle, to the western coast and through the region of lakes, I found one common thread: subtle but evident wreckage and trauma left behind from the 2010 earthquake.
On 1st West Street in Talca, adobe houses still lay in ruins next to vacant lots. “I used to cross the street so that I didn’t have to walk by that building,” she said, pointing out a weathered adobe structure. “If you ever hear creaking, you need to cross the street as quickly as you can,” she advised. Crumbing ruins of a historic elementary school now host no students, but instead display broken windows and graffitied opinions. I stop to take a quick photo, noting the juxtaposition of well dressed and lively pedestrians passing by and smiling, laughing and singing. They weave along sidewalks dotted with venders displaying colorful scarves and handmade jewelry. Perhaps now, the ruins in physical form are less shocking to locals who have walked by them everyday for the last six years. But traumatic memories are still vibrant and the wounds are still healing.
The Shalom Center camp staff remembers being awoken by the earthquake in the middle of the night. “I was trying to stand up but my tent was shaking so badly that I couldn’t. There’s a large bell that we’re supposed to ring to signal an emergency, but we didn’t have to because the bell was ringing itself.” Recently, a different person touched briefly on the trauma of her experience, “I’m sure some of you remember that I didn’t leave my house for two months after the earthquake.” During my first visit to the camp property, we hiked to a beautiful scenic vista. “I used to sit there on that rock, but I don’t anymore,” she pointed to the edge of the overlook with views of the waterfall and river below. “Imagine if you were sitting there during an earthquake.”
During our travel south, I was taken to the coastal town of Dichato, now almost completely rebuilt after being devastated in the tsunami triggered by the earthquake. As we journeyed back through farmland, a local pointed out a field. “During the tsunami boats washed up here, more than 3 miles from shore.” She went on to explain her experience living in Tomé during the natural disaster. “We were able to drink boiled spring water, but we didn’t have water to bathe for a month. We couldn’t communicate with our relatives for four days. They read newspaper headlines stating, “Tomé completely destroyed” and they couldn’t know if we were alive. It was worse than any movie we’ve ever seen about natural disaster.” Living on a hill, her family was safe, and home left structurally sound, but she recounted with great sadness the challenges faced in the rebuilding of her city. “I wanted to close my eyes and not see the needs of others around me because I didn’t know where to start. We did everything we could but it felt like it wasn’t enough. After a month, I stopped asking people ‘how are you’ and instead greeted them with ‘good morning’. I couldn’t bear to hear the answers anymore.” She went on to explain, “For months after the earthquake, every little tremble triggered people and they would start weeping in the streets and acting crazy.”
As I continue to hear these firsthand stories, I can see a small glimpse into the reality of the event I had only heard about briefly on the evening news almost six years before. On the topic of natural disasters, I recall headlines from the recent earthquake in Chile just that affected the fourth region of the country. I recall the 2005 hurricane in New Orleans, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, just to name a few. I think of these nations coming together to move forward past the wreckage and honoring those lost. I see foreign countries giving aid and showing compassion in the rebuilding process. Here in Chile, and around the world, I am beginning to see the enormous challenge of healing these deep-rooted traumas. But also, I see the commitment of individuals who have lived through tragedy now choosing to not live in fear. Because of this, there is hope.