The Hypocritical Earthquake

The following is brought to us through the courtesy of World ORT.

by Chilean writer Rafael Gumucio

It is being called the hypocritical earthquake in Chile. A distracted visitor could walk through downtown Santiago and visit the upper and middle class residential areas and barely be able to tell that the Earth shook here last week as few times it has ever done so before in seismological history.

Years of preparation, powerful previous earthquakes and undeniable development led Chileans to believe that this catastrophe would practically leave no victims and that the human factor would’t be affected at all. Such as many or better said too many things in Chile, disaster is subtle and many times invisible, but it is there, hidden by our anxiety to be and seem normal, that is to say, to be seen as a First World country.

The greatest danger that encompasses this Chilean disaster is its invisibility. Many buildings (2% of the 1500 of Chile´s central Region) that externally seem to have survived unscathed harbor deep cracks in the interior walls rendering them unusable. The same can be said about the country in general: the facade was left more or less intact, the structure did not collapse, but many of the country`s hidden cracks became deeper and therefore inevitable.

To experience the aftermath of two of the most important and severe earthquakes registered this century is to cover the broad range of an arch. In Haiti, the images, evidence, horror, and astonishment were predominant whereas in Chile, it has been the rumors, subtleness, numbers and paradoxes. In Haiti entire families swatting flies away from the fresh stumps of their relatives are seen in the streets. Horror did everything possible to reveal itself on a full blown scale from the very first day. On the other hand, in Chile, everything has been so strangely slow and concealed that at times it is rather difficult to remember the scale of the disaster. In Haiti, most of the old structures collapsed during the first second of the earthquake while in Chile, it is ironically the new structures that fell. Buildings destined for the rising middle class, the new international airport proudly decorated in a modern and international style, and the recently inaugurated highways, were the first to collapse. Builders say they were supposed to collapse the way they did to save lives. Non professional people wonder if that is so, then what could have happened if the earthquake stroke during broad day light busy hour.

The contrasts multiply in all aspects of both earthquakes. In Haiti, the capital was devastated whereas in Chile, it was the provinces, the forgotten provinces where development has barely permeated the population, a population that now suffers and is unable to count their dead. If the supermarkets in Port-au- Prince were virtual deathtraps, the ones in Concepcion were strangely ransacked by thieves who carried away televisions and food while showing the cameras that they had fistfuls of money but no one to pay it to.

Chile is not Haiti, but it is not Sweden or Switzerland either as we would like to believe. It is somewhere in between, located in a unique limbo in which the structures are resistant but the ornaments fall dangerously. The facades remain standing while the interior walls are split by deep cracks. In Chile, entire regions have been forgotten. Regions, that have never had a hospital or a highway, have new buildings that bring the promise of an upper class lifestyle but made with second hand materials. Income and taxes are a common currency and so are fear, paranoia and hunger when disaster strikes, but they are undeniably distributed unfairly. While most homes in Santiago are relatively intact and have electricity and water once again, many of those who tried to imitate this lifestyle now realize the deep lack of protection rooted in their homes and lives.

Unprotected in buildings that seem luxurious and living too far away from where the decisions are made, the earthquake has reminded them not only of how fragile life is, but of the fragility of the “Chilean miracle” as well.

Read about Chile’s ‘forgotten poor‘ and ORT’s work with the county’s most vulnerable communities.