Anyone who was not a true believer in Chilean construction quality before, sure must be now.
On September 16, 2015, just before 8 p.m. (the sun had recently set), central Chile was struck by a powerful 8.4 Richter Scale earthquake, followed shortly thereafter by major aftershocks on that scale of 7.6, 7.2 and 6.7. The epicenter was about 95 miles north of where I live in Viña del Mar and close to the same distance south of La Serena. It was strongly felt in Santiago, too.
The shaking lasted between two and three minutes–quite a long time. Tsunamis of one to four meters hit the Chilean central coast within two hours, causing considerable damage in some places, including Concón just north of Viña del Mar, Tongoy and other parts of the Coquimbo Region.
Several people died from heart attacks, and a few people died in older towns when adobe structures caved-in on them. Still, the total death toll stands at a surprisingly low 11 people. Earthquakes of much smaller magnitudes in other countries have killed hundreds and thousands of people.
A couple hundred older structures in smaller cities like Illapel were damaged or destroyed, and structures in villages along the coast were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami waves. Some villages had power outages. In the country’s main urban centers of Santiago, Viña del Mar and Valparaíso and in La Serena there was no significant damage and no loss of power. The Internet never stopped working. Cell phones stayed online as well, and the government sent out tsunami evacuation warnings via cell phone service.
Now, 72 hours after the earthquake, there have been a total of 340 aftershocks. It shakes about once every ten minutes on average. Most of these aftershocks have been between 3 and 5,5 on the Richter Scale. However, some have been larger. Ten have been between 5.5 and 5.9 on that scale, ten more between 6.0 and 6.9, and two have been over 7.
To say that Central Chile has been rocking and rolling is an understatement. But the country is well prepared for seismic activity and life has continued on normally since the shaking started.
What other country in the world has a completely normal business day following an 8.4 quake and two aftershocks over 7? That’s a rhetorical question obviously. The number is zero.
The interesting thing is that the international press says that since the big quake in 2010, Chilean quake standards or building quality has gone up a lot. They have risen but were already high enough. Things are obviously solid in Chile. Indeed, there has been no significant damage to places that I know of whatsoever. One friend of mine in Santiago commented: “It is amazing isn’t it? I honestly felt no fear last night. Just slept through the aftershocks. Chileans do some things VERY well.” I could not agree more. My business day after the earthquake was 100% normal, as if there were no catastrophic earthquake the previous night.
My friend continued: “I watched from my terrace window as things shook. Transformers were blowing up all over the city of Santiago. Huge balls of fire and a cascade of sparks. Yet there were no blackouts. So, obviously, there is a lot of redundancy built into the grid. It can take a lot of punishment and not go down. Amazing…” He continued, “I think it is really hard for people outside of Chile to understand how violent these quakes are. Yet, it is equally difficult for the same people to understand that a country can be prepared and fend off the worst of it. I think one has to experience it firsthand to really get it.”
Funny how many Americans just assume that their building quality standards are as high or higher than Chile’s. But they are not. Earthquake danger is much higher in North America, New Zealand or Europe than in it is in Chile. When it comes to earthquakes, Chileans do not mess around, and they are trained from an early age to be prepared.
In recent years, much smaller earthquakes in New Zealand, Haiti, Italy and California have had a devastating impact on lives lost and property damaged. In fact, these earthquakes were smaller than several of the aftershocks we have experienced in the last few days.
I watched with dismay as the Fox News reporter started talking about the assumed horrible impact of this quake in Chile, just judging by the scale score and not considering that Chile is prepared to withstand such quakes. He must have been really let down to find out that not much transpired as a result of the earthquake. Chile is simply not a sensational story when it comes to seismic activity.
The tallest building in South America, Costanera Center, swayed back and forth, creating a horrifying experience for people up high (see the You Tube videos of the experience). But in the end the building withstood the earthquake. It all makes for interesting conversation the next day but not much more.
By the way, right now would be a good time to buy apartments or condos on higher floors, since they always sell for less immediately after a big earthquake. At any rate, newcomers have little need to worry about surviving earthquakes in Chile. The country is prepared for them. Several newcomers in Viña del Mar were of course startled by the massive earthquake, but I am sure have by now been quite impressed with how their new country has handled the situation.
Postscript: I am updating this post 56 hours later for those that are interested in the statistics. Since the time of the original post we have had another 223 aftershocks, one every 15 minutes. Seven of them (3%) have been 5.5 Richter Scale or over: 5.5, 6.2, 6.0, 6.7, 5.8. 6.0, 6.2. Some of them have been quite jolting, enough to make one start or wake a person up. The total number of aftershocks through 5 a.m. Chile time on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 (128 hours after the earthquake), has been 563, of which 29 (5%) have been between 5.5 and 7.6 on the Richter Scale. On average, we have been having a large aftershock once every 4.4 hours and aftershocks of at least 3 Richter Scale have come every 13.6 minutes on average. For the last week, one has really experienced the earth moving under his feet!
In terms of damage to older buildings, mainly in poorer, coastal villages in the 4th and 5th Regions, 814 were completely destroyed and 1,005 we severely damaged according to this report, with 13,427 people claiming to have been damaged by the earthquakes and tsunami. Just 13 hours shy of one week from the time of the earthquake (6.5 days), another 71 smaller aftershocks above 2.5 Richter Scale had been registered, bringing the total to 634. One week from the time of the earthquake, another 146 smaller aftershocks above 2.5 Richter Scale (almost all above 3.5) had been registered, bringing the total to 699, one every 14.4 minutes on average, although most cannot be felt.
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