by Fr Dan Harding
The powerful earthquake that struck Chile on Saturday affected the Philippines in that PHIVOLCS issued a tsunami warning. Indeed, your editor got a text at 2am yesterday, Sunday, saying that people were fleeing from the seashore in his former parish of Lianga, Surigao del Sur, Diocese of Tandag. When I checked the PHIVOLCS website I saw that the tsunami, if there was one, would hit the east coast of the Philippines between 1 and 2:20pm Sunday. As it happened, nothing happened but it is good that there is now a warning system.
Unlike Haiti - and the Philippines? - Chile was prepared for such a disaster. the death toll is much lower than that of the recent Haiti earthquake, which wasn't quite as powerful, though much infrastructre has been destroyed. Please remember the people of Chile in your prayers.
I received from our headquarters in Australia this report from a Columban in Chile, Fr Dan Harding.
1 March 2010
As the only remaining Australian Columban in Chile from the Australia/New Zealand region, I decided to send you this email about the terrible situation this country is living through at the moment.
The first thing I want to say is that all Columbans, Associates and Lay Missionaries are well. This earthquake at 8.8 at the epicentre on the Richter Scale was one of the most powerful in history, or rather since recording earthquakes began. It was the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded in history and lasted almost 3 minutes. Even though the city of Santiago is several hundred kilometres from the epicentre, the level of intensity for us here in Santiago was 8.5 on the Richter scale. Remember the Haiti earthquake was 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The largest earthquake ever recorded was in Chile in 1960 at 9.5.
Speaking personally it was a terrible shock to be awakened from deep sleep at the beginning of the earthquake. My small dog woke me barking, birds outside were fluttering wildly. I thought to myself that a neighbours' cat must be at the birds. So I got up and turned the light on. Just then the earthquake started with great intensity and all the electricity cut out. I was lucky to get outside and hold on to a fence in the darkness as the earth, trees and buildings around me shook wildly. It was an extremely frightening experience. I was completely helpless, not knowing what was going to happen and trying to catch my breath. Luckily none of us in the Columban Centre House were hurt and there was only minor damage to the buildings. After an earthquake everyone goes out onto the street for fear of aftershocks. I spent the rest of night with hundreds of neighbours out on the footpath in pyjamas in the cold morning air.
Much of the central part of Chile with over 80% of the population has been badly affected by the earthquake and the following Tsunami along the coast. Over 2,000,000 people have had their homes damaged or badly affected. Since the earthquake at 03.34 am Saturday morning local time, we have received over 90 aftershocks which will continue for months ahead. Some of the aftershocks like one at 8.30 this morning (Sunday) were in themselves small earthquakes at 6.5 on the Richter Scale. The death toll is at 708 and climbing with dozens of disappeared.
The epicentre of the earthquake was only 90 kilometres from the city of Concepción, which is 500 kilometres from Santiago to the south along the coast. We Columbans do not work in Concepcion. There has been massive damage to Concepcion, its twin city Talcahuano and other cities between Santiago and Concepcion such as Chillan, Talca, Linares and Rancagua. In Concepcion, a 14 storey apartment block fell backwards, snapping into various parts. Rescue teams are still working on this building with over 40 people still unaccounted for. Continuous aftershocks hinder the rescue work.
Today, Sunday, police and now the military are trying to hold back looters in Concepcion and Santiago from looting supermarkets, shops and banks. Few supermarkets are open here in Santiago today for fear of looters. The metro is not yet functioning. There is a sense of panic in the air with long queues at petrol stations and the few shops that are open. This afternoon when I had to travel through the older part of Santiago, I saw hundreds of buildings damaged, burst water mains and families with a few pieces of furniture living out on the footpaths.
The Terminal at the International Airport in Santiago was severly damaged and only now are a few flights arriving from overseas. People wanting to leave Chile have to travel over the Andes to the Argentinian city of Mendoza and from there fly to Buenos Aires. In the city of Chillan, south of Santiago, a wall in the local jail collapsed and over 200 prisoners escaped.
The earthquake was followed 20 minutes later by a Tsunami along the Chilean coast up as far north as Valparaiso, which is on the coast near Santiago. Giant Tsunami waves entered the coastal cities of Talcahuano, Constitucion and many coastal resort towns such as Ilorca, Duao and on the island of Juan Fernandez, washing out to sea hundred of houses, buses, cars and people. As Chileans are used to earthquakes and Tsunamis, many people from the coast managed to escape to higher ground before the arrival of the Tsunami. At this stage, it is not know how many people were drowned by the Tsunami, but it is estimated that at least 150 people were drowned in the city of Constitution alone. In one coastal town, a ferris wheel was dragged upright from a small fair by the Tsunami wave a distance of 250 metres.
It is Sunday night here as I write this email. Hundreds of families are sleeping outdoors in Santiago alone because their homes have either been destroyed or seriously damaged and are dangerous to occupy. Most damage in Santiago is in the older colonial part of the city. In this area, there are families sleeping in all the parks, plazas and outside their damaged apartment buildings. Many beautiful old colonial style churches have been damaged or destroyed. All around Santiago and on the main highway to the south, overpasses have collapsed effectively destroying much of Chile's advanced highway system. Thousands of people in Santiago as well as in the south do not yet have electricity or water connected.
We Columbans have asked the people in our parishes to pray and to help as much as possible the victims of the earthquake and the Tsunami. We will most likely be organizing special masses and collections and fundraising activities in all of our parishes.
Chile is one of the most organized countries in South America and especially well prepared for earthquakes and Tsunamis. All schools have earthquake practice and for those near the coast, Tsunami practice. Chilean rescue teams played an important role recently in Haiti. In less than two weeks, we will have a change of government which will complicate somewhat the recovery efforts.
Please keep the Chilean people in your prayers and we Columbans serving here. We thank God that none of us were hurt in any way.
Fr Dan Harding