Chilean Town Shaken by Reminders of Deadly Quake

By LUIS ANDRES HENAO | December 14, 2012

One jolt hit in the middle of the night. Another caught fishermen at a nearby beach. Then the ground shook at supper. And then again, and again: More than 170 tremors were felt in Navidad in just five weeks. The strongest struck during a funeral, and sent panicked mourners fleeing into the street.

Navidad, a coastal farming town of 5,500 people, has become one of the shakiest spots in one of the world’s shakiest countries. And seismologists can’t say whether these were aftershocks from Chile’s devastating quake two years ago, or warnings of another huge disaster to come.

Navidenos, though, have learned to take quakes in stride.

In this town whose name means Christmas, some decorate Christmas trees with quakes in mind, wiring ornaments to the branches or taking extra efforts to secure the base. Restaurant owners nail wood railings panels to their shelves to keep glasses and liquor from crashing down. Some now use canned beer, shunning bottles as too risky.

Children at public schools practice drills every day and everyone seems to have a quake bag with flashlights and food ready.

“We were born, grew up and were raised with earthquakes,” acting Mayor Rodrigo Soto said. “It seems like the world for the first time has discovered Navidad. Everyone asks us if we’re scared and all we can say is that we need to be prepared.”

Still, no amount of preparation can avoid that panicky feeling when the ground really rumbles. There’s no way to know at that moment whether the shaking will pass quickly, or become frighteningly worse.

While the ground shook under the pews at the funeral, the faces of the mourners turned pale like the dead. Despite appeals for calm, the church swayed so much that people panicked and ran outside.

“People were terrorized,” said Carolina Jeria, recalling that 5.9-magnitude quake on Nov. 21.

“In a moment like that, you lose control. We’re very worried about the quakes because the big one in 2010 caught us unprepared.”

Soto says the town still has an inadequate tsunami alert system – a siren that sounds like a car alarm and lacks the volume needed to reach all the townspeople. But after so many tremors, he says Navidenos know in their bones when to run.

They know they’ll barely feel a magnitude-2, but a magnitude-7 will knock them off their feet and that’s a sign to scramble for high ground in case there’s a tsunami.

Aside from the quakes, life is slow in Navidad. Many farmers still use oxen to plow their land, while others cater to tourists who come for the Pacific beaches from Chile’s capital of Santiago, 100 miles northeast of town. Yet people are often on edge.

It’s not just the ground’s trembling that reminds people of earthquake risks here. Alongside the highway into town, wildflowers grow around tsunami warning signs that urge residents to build their homes high or be prepared to run for higher ground.

So far, the recent tremors have not caused damage or injuries, but they’re a frequent reminder of the 8.8-magnitude quake and tsunami in 2010 that devastated much of Chile’s coast, including Navidad. That quake killed 551 people, destroyed 220,000 homes and washed away docks and seaside resorts, costing Chile $30 billion, or 18 percent of its annual gross domestic product.

No Navidenos died, but nearly 200 homes were lost or severely damaged, and most townspeople had no power or water for a month.

“During the 2010 quake, the rupture zone reached all the way to Navidad. That’s why seismologists at the Universidad de Chile indicate that these could be late aftershocks,” Miguel Ortiz, national chief of the early alert center at Chile’s ONEMI Emergency Office. He also said the recent shaking could be a harbinger of another huge quake to come.

A team of international scientists said the chance of a big, or even great, quake could have increased along a wide expanse of Chile’s coast because of the 2010 quake. Their report in the journal Nature Geoscience last year concluded that it relieved only some of the stress accumulating underground since an 1835 quake that was witnessed and documented by British naturalist Charles Darwin.

Just off Chile’s long coast, the Nazca tectonic plate plunges beneath the South American continent, pushing the towering Andes to ever-higher altitudes. The 2010 quake was so strong it changed time, shortening the Earth’s day slightly by changing the planet’s rotation. The strongest earthquake ever recorded also happened in Chile, a magnitude-9.5 in 1960 that struck about 500 miles south of Navidad and killed more than 5,000 people.

“What strikes me most about Chile is its beauty but also great potential for disasters- from large earthquakes to volcanic eruptions, much like in California,” said Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Service.

“The big faults are responsible for the big earthquakes but also for beautiful mountains, active volcanoes, and a range of climates – from very cold to deserts,” Caruso said. “It’s a fascinating place, especially for a geophysicist.”

Navidenos have different ways of coping.

Retiree Carmen Delgado is so haunted by the 2010 disaster that she often stays awake trembling, anxiously waiting for the sun to rise so she can volunteer as a waitress at a local restaurant to keep her mind busy.

“People are afraid because in the past weeks it shook so much,” said Karen Contreras, 18, a waitress at La Boca restaurant, near the mouth of a river that runs down to the ocean from the green hills surrounding the town.

“It’s still trembling, but at least people know where to evacuate if it’s strong,” she added.

At the Divina Gabriela public school, children rush out of classrooms and line up at the sound of a rusty white bell each day. There’s also an annual earthquake drill.

“I keep canned goods, a flashlight and batteries, because we’re scared about these daily quakes,” said Valentina Villagran, 11. “Every kid here knows they should run for the hills.”

Evelyn Perez, 31, who’s studying to become a teacher, was seven months pregnant when she was jarred awake in 2010. She dragged three kids up cold, dark streets without any emergency supplies. Now she keeps a quake bag at her door.

From his porch overlooking the Pacific, Hernan Cepeda, 82, recalls how the tsunami rolled toward him that night. He ended up clinging to the roots of bushes and losing his dentures, almost swallowed by the sea.

“I didn’t return here until last year and now the tremors have brought back memories,” Cepeda said. “It seemed like it didn’t shake as much before. No one can tell what will happen next, but all you hear is that the next one will be an even bigger quake.”

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