The house at right used to be located on the beach (out of frame to the left) (Photo: Allen)
The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck coastal Chile last month, one of the most powerful ever recorded, also sent out shock waves that rocked some Eastern Sierra residents. Several area families have relatives in Chile, including Bishop local Katharine Allen, whose brother, Hervey, his wife, Paula and their daughter, Francisca, have been Santiago residents for roughly the last seven years.
Feb. 27 … 3:34 a.m., local time
The quake struck during a week in which much of Chile was on summer vacation. Hervey, who works as a consultant setting up Internet infrastructure in poorer countries, was on a project in Malaysia, but the rest of his family was staying at a quiet beach in Iloca. Unable to reach them, Hervey called Katharine. “It was daytime in Malaysia and the middle of the night here,” she recalls. “When the quake hit, at first no one really knew what was happening to those stuck beach-side, or how to get to them. I spent all night working on getting him home and managed to get him to Buenos Aires, then to Mendoza, Argentina, which is the nearest direct mountain pass access into Chile.” Katharine’s business contacts in Argentina helped Hervey hop a bus to Santiago.
She likened the situation to living in the Eastern Sierra and having only one highway to access the rest of California, and that highway (the I-5) is compromised.
Katharine said the experience was nothing short of surreal. “I was streaming Chilean national TV off of a Twitter feed … multitasking with technology. I was better informed here in Bishop than many people on the ground in Chile. The network was broadcasting, but no one near the epicenter had power, so they couldn’t see anything.”
Iloca took a major hit. Waves up to 50 feet high came ashore within 15 minutes of the quake, delivering a 90 percent structural loss, according to the Chilean government. Paula and Francisca were in a bed and breakfast along with seven other family members, but that house had been structurally reinforced and didn’t completely fall apart. As Paula related, it was pitch black and the ground was shaking for what seemed to be an eternity. Everyone scrambled to the beach, trying to find a hillside to avoid any impending tsunami. As luck would have it, the family secured a jeep ride to higher ground just before the first wave arrived.
At dawn, the family made its way 120 kilometers east to Curico, where they also have a kiwi farm. A friend of Hervey’s in Santiago had been trying all night to reach them by cell phone, and finally got a call through, letting them know Hervey was on his way. Hervey had been out of contact with his family for 13 hours, an eternity it seemed, but a short time compared to the days he thought it might take. He finally spoke to Paula just before boarding a flight to Argentina.
Luckily, Hervey arrived home to find he actually still had one. Wooden houses in Chile are considered “low class,” but fortunately Hervey built a wood house and the structure withstood the massive quake. The house at the farm in Curico fared much worse, but was also very close to the epicenter in Concepcion.
Paula was deeply affected by the devastation to Iloca, she and Hervey started an awareness and support website (www.relief4iloca.org) to help with relief efforts. Aided by other groups, such as the surfing community, the grass roots effort quickly raised $7,500 and truckloads of supplies. Hervey’s back to work, but juggles his time, as he and Paula continue to help the people in Iloca put their lives back together with fall and winter on the way.
Meanwhile, aftershocks are still being felt. “I Skype with people in Chile, and suddenly the shot will shake,” Katharine said. “Their nerves must be shot.”
Katharine said she’s been “touched” by how local groups, such as the Bishop Rotary, have made generous contributions to help out the relief effort. “They can’t even see where it’s going, and yet they give,” she said. “A friend of mine pulled $100 out of his wallet and said, ‘I’m in. Who’s going to match me?’”
Katharine’s grateful her brother’s family got through unscathed, but “my heart goes out to those less fortunate,” another reason she’s happy to do whatever she can to pitch in. “Habitat for Humanity, through its Chilean arm, A Roof for Chile, can build a whole home for $1,500, which is impressive considering the cost of living there really isn’t that much less,” Katharine said. “Every little bit helps.”
How is Chile doing today? With only one major roadway running through the entire country, transit is still somewhat challenged. Hervey said that between Santiago and Temuco there are eight “official” detours on the I-5. “One of the worst is just south of Santiago, where a bridge fell on the main freeway,” he related. “And almost every single bridge on the smaller roads has been displaced, forcing you to slow down due to a raising or lowering of the roadway where it meets the bridge. A lot of minor damage, however, has already been fixed. Driving to the coast we noted two emergency bridges already in place.”
On the coast, it’s a different story. “There are areas [i.e. south of Iloca] where the entire coastal road is just gone,” Hervey said.
How does he think things are going in Chile, as compared to Haiti?
“It’s night and day in terms of Chile versus Haiti,” he replied. “Chile has enough resources that people have food, water and healthcare access. The infrastructure may take a couple of years to rebuild, but it’s already happening at full tilt.”
The biggest issue, he indicated, is housing. “A long-term equivalent to what they had may take years to rebuild,” he said. “It will [hamper] the Chilean economy for a year or two, but then the economic situation will improve as new infrastructure goes into place. That, of course, depends on whether the government aims to rebuild as good or better, or goes for quick fixes, which is still unclear.”
Hervey said estimates put the total damage in Chile at around $30 billion (U.S). Chile’s yearly governmental budget is roughly $40-45 billion.
California, Chile and a wobbly Earth
The recent quakes in both Chile and Haiti were both “big ones,” but with few exceptions, California has been relatively quiet by comparison. With our tectonic region eerily resembling that underneath Chile, many wonder are we next? Scientists generally agree we’re due, but differ on when.
“We don’t really know,” said Dr. Nancy King, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena in a recent interview with PBS. “People have looked for patterns in every possible way. And except for the pattern that after an earthquake there are usually aftershocks, we really haven’t found anything.”
The last “big one” that occurred on the Southern San Andreas Fault was in 1857, but at that time there were very few people here and therefore not much damage, King observed.
Meanwhile, Bishop-based scientist Dr. Tony Phillips recently explained one extraordinary effect of the Chilean quake in a report published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Phillips is a Cornell University-educated Doctor of Astrophysics, who currently now works for NASA, and also manages the popular astronomy website SpaceWeather.com.
According to Phillips, the recent Chilean temblor was so strong that it might have shifted the axis of Earth itself. “If our calculations are correct, the quake moved Earth’s figure axis by about 3 inches (8 cm),” says geophysicist Richard Gross of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The antennas we use to track spacecraft en route to Mars and elsewhere are located on Earth. If our tracking platform shifts, we need to know about it.”
“The Chilean quake shifted enough material to change the mass balance of our entire planet,” Gross says. No one has ever measured a shift in Earth’s axis due to an earthquake before. Back in 2004, Gross looked for a shift from a magnitude 9.1 quake in Sumatra, but failed to find a signal. The Sumatra quake was less effective in altering Earth’s figure axis because of its location near the equator and the orientation of the underlying fault.
Though somewhat weaker, Chile’s quake may have produced a bigger shift. Phillips said indicated that revelation could well mean that “the stage is now set” for new discovery. “Computing power is at an all-time high,” Phillips pointed out. “Our models of tides, winds and ocean currents have never been better. And the orientation of the Chilean fault favors a stronger signal.”
Find out more about Chilean relief efforts at www.relief4iloca.org.