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  • Andrea Juarez

What it's like to survive an earthquake

It was Saturday Feb. 27 of 2010 in Santiago, Chile, when 20-year old Maria Jose Neira was sleepless, she had finished watching a movie and lay down on her bed thinking she was having a weekend like any other.

Suddenly, she felt a tremor.

Neira says in Chile, it is common to have tremors.

Most cities in the world consider tremors higher than 5 degrees an earthquake but in Chile, when tremors are over five degrees, people don’t even wake up.

She says she just lay down in her bed and waited for the tremor to end, but seconds after, the intensity rose.

“I’ve never experienced an actual earthquake, so it was a very unusual situation for me," she says.

“It was the strongest earthquake I’ve experienced since I was born.”

For Neira, the earthquake lasted a long time. Her family lives in a third floor apartment, and she remembers that she and her parents gathered together at the main entrance of her parents’ bedroom and hugged until the earthquake stopped.

“I felt as if the apartment was going to fall apart and everything would end that day.”

Neira remembers hearing the sound of everything dropping, the way windows moved and how doors opened and closed.

“You could listen how everything was destroyed and you didn’t know what to do.”

She wasn’t sure if the structure of the building was strong enough, in addition that they didn’t have any electricity.

“You couldn’t do anything but wait and resign that it was your last breath.”

After the earthquake, Neira’s parents, who had more experience with tremors, said that it hadn’t been a tremor but an earthquake.

Chile needs a 7.9 magnitude tremor to consider an earthquake.

This earthquake was a 8.8-magnitude scale.

Neira remarks that her brother, who was on vacation at the south of Chile, called to tell his family he was on his way to a hill because he was in the coast, and that’s what people do in case of tsunami warnings.

In that moment, Neira’s brother didn’t know there had been an earthquake in Santiago. After that call, they couldn’t communicate again.

Neira’s mother, Susana Gonzalez, says she told Maria Jose to pack a bag full of winter clothes and anything she thought she would need.

“I wasn’t sure if we had to stay the night in the streets. The situation didn’t seem good at all,” Gonzalez says.

There wasn’t any electricity or water. However, Neira is lucky to live near the government palace, where the electricity was back on at 5 a.m.

She decided to watch the news, and realized about the disaster that just happened in her country.

Having water and electricity wasn’t very much a good thing because it made her realize how terrible the situation was.

People started panicking, plundering supermarkets and robbing houses.

“Being under so much stress, the only think you can ever think of is how to survive.

“You have to make those kind of things in order to ensure your existence because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In the zone where her brother was staying, a ship ended up at the middle of a mall because of a tsunami, which made her panic.

“You start to realize that your brother is in danger.”

The day after the earthquake, her brother called to say he was fine and ready to go down the hill because the tsunami alert stopped.

“I think people are more afraid of tsunamis because an earthquake doesn’t damage as much as a tsunami,” says Neira.

She remembers her father decided to look after her brother and bring him back to Santiago. The situation was chaotic and sad.

Neira’s father, Pedro Neira, says he sat down in the car and started to cry because he wasn’t sure what was going to happen.

“You have to decide whether you want to sit down and cry, or try to move on and do whatever you can,” says Pedro Neira.

Pedro Neira says he had to bribe police officers in order to cross a bridge to get to Concepcion, the city where his son was.

“I had to give out cigarettes to the police officers in order to cross.

“The level of sorrow and exhaustion was so high that the transit officers were not even directing the transit. It was a jungle.”

The only ones who were able to cross were strong or wealthy people, so Neira’s father and uncle decided to direct the transit.

Pedro Neira Gonzalez, Maria Jose’s brother, was able to be back in Santiago safe and sound, thanks to his father’s efforts.

He says people in the south are better, and even the supermarket owners let people plunder their stores.

Neira spent a week in Concepcion after the earthquake, where he couldn’t sleep and when he did, he was armed as some people tried to take advantage of the situation.

He says some people have “lower solidarity” and instead of contributing to the situation, they brought out the worst of themselves, and that people had to make guards and fireplaces due to the state of fear, chaos and hysteria.

He says that it’s something he never wants to experience again.

For Maria Jose, it was tough to see her father worried about her brother; in addition, the earthquake affected her family that lives in the south.

“A lot of places I used to know fell apart, the walls that separated my grandma’s house from her neighbours fell down too. It was terrible.”

Neira says she doesn’t’ ever want to experience an earthquake again because she felt everything she had, or everything she thought was the base of her life, didn’t have any worth.

“You realize having a lot of money in the bank is not helpful because all supermarkets are empty and you can’t buy anything.

“You realize that a big, fancy house is as fragile as a normal, humble one. You realize who is truly there for you to help you.

“These kind of tragedies show who you really are and makes you value your family.

“It makes you question what to do because your life can finish in any minute, and that makes you feel very scared.”

Even though the earthquake brought out the worst of some people, it also brought out the best of some.

“People always find their way to face life and keep moving forward.”

She adds that people who live those tragedies are able to pick themselves up and move forward.

Chileans are not afraid of tremors but about the possibility of having another earthquake.

“Us Chileans have a capacity to overcome every disaster or tragedy. We’ve had earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and fires.

“The way I see things, after so many tremors, I’ve learned that in Chile, people are able to stop crying and rebuild themselves.

“If you fall, you get up again.”


Featured image by Sunyu Kim, Unsplash.


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