My Turn: Surviving the Chilean Earthquake

At 1:45 a.m. on Feb. 27, I slunk into bed. It was a loud night; my neighbors were hosting a raucous birthday party, which called for several renditions of "Feliz Cumpleaños." Waiting for the festivities to wind down, I began Isabel Allende's recent memoir, My Invented Country. At 2:20 I turned off the light and let the Chilean summer air ease me to sleep.

An hour later, my apartment began to shake violently. In the kitchen, a vase of flowers fell over. I leapt up and ran for my laptop to save it from sliding off the desk (yes, that was my first instinct). Then I braced myself against a wall, waiting for the quake to end. When it did, there was nothing but silence and darkness. Without electricity, there were no blinking lights, no white noise. There were no screams, no horns, no wails—just a black silence.

But the earth was only taking a breather. During the next few hours, there were about 25 aftershocks, including 6.2 and 6.9 temblors. Per-haps unwisely, I lay in bed the whole time, feeling like a ship being rocked to and fro by gales. The start-and-stop nature of the aftershocks made them scarier than the original quake—it felt as if the ground were flinching. During a rare moment of stillness, I heard my neighbor exclaim—with a mixture of terror and gratitude—"¡Gracias por Dios! ¡Gracias por Dios!"

When the sun came up, my electricity had returned. On television were images of devastation: a collapsed parking garage, crumbling churches, and hundreds of thousands of severely damaged homes along the coast and near the epicenter outside Concepción. In the streets of Santiago, where I'm staying while I work on writing and entrepreneurial projects, there was a gray haze, reportedly from a chemical fire. Rubble and broken glass lay on the sidewalks. But overall my relatively upscale neighborhood sustained little significant damage. It's the reality of economics—richer places, stronger buildings, less hardship—and it made me think back to questions I pondered in the abstract after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the 2008 quake in China's Sichuan province, and the January quake in Haiti.

The anonymity then of death tolls, my lack of proximity, and the fact that I wasn't sending or receiving "Are you OK?" e-mails made it easy to think in broad, analytical strokes. But now I'm thinking about people, places, and details. I'm trying to track down friends I haven't heard from, and I'm afraid of what I might find out. I have images of driving on roads and bridges that are now destroyed. When I saw footage of looters ravaging supermarkets during other -disasters, I blindly condemned them; I thought, how could this be all right? Now I'm deeply conflicted watching interviews with old Chilean women emerging from broken supermarkets, dodging tear gas, and shrieking into the camera, "I don't have water, I don't have food—what do you expect me to do?" The lessons I'm learning are not necessarily intellectual or academic; they are about empathy.

A few days after the quake, I ate dinner at my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, just down the street from my apartment. For the first time, my usual waiter initiated a conversation with me. He asked how I was -doing and how I was feeling in light of all that had happened. Normally he doesn't bother trying to decipher the broken Spanish of a gringo. But the bond of our shared experience—for the moment, anyway—transcended language barriers. We all know the clichés: common challenges unite uncommon people; humanity knows no borders, etc., etc. But those maxims really do come to life when life itself is at its most tenuous.