Earthquake! Viva Chile!

So, this happened on Thursday night, late…


I had just climbed into bed, when the closet door banged shut, the bed shook for a few minutes, and it was over. Except for the gentle swaying of the apartment building, which continued for the next several minutes. We’re on the 17th floor, so the movement of the building’s earthquake dampening system takes a while to settle down.

A few seconds after the initial shock, I woke my wife and asked her if she’d felt it. She spoke sharply to me, told me that the bed always shakes when I fall into it at two in the morning, and then rolled over and went back to sleep. And I forgot about the earthquake until someone mentioned it the next day.

This is my second Chilean quake. The last time I was here, six years ago, we had just checked into a fun little hotel in Copiapo when a 5.0 struck. Amusing and not even scary. Sort of a conversation starter, rather than a moment of terror.

Chile has remarkably stringent and far-sighted building codes, which is good, given that earthquakes are a constant threat. And doubly good because Chile gets the “Big One” about every five or six years. In fact, when Chileans talk about the BIG ONE, they really mean something like this: the 1960 Valdivia Earthquake, a terrifying 9.5 monster that shook for ten minutes, left one quarter of population of Chile homeless, and launched a tsunami that killed 61 people in Hawaii and 160+ in Japan. The quake was so large that it caused volcanic eruptions, massive landslides, 80-foot high waves, and at least one human sacrifice.

How big is 9.5? The 1906 San Francisco quake was a 7.9. Because the Richter scale is logarithmic, rather than linear, a 9.5 is 39,810 times bigger than a 7.9, and releases 250,000 times more energy.

Collapsed Building in Concepcion 2010
I bet you’ve seen this photo before.

Another big one hit in 2010, an 8.8 that killed 525 people, and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. (8.8 is “only” 7,943 times bigger than the 1906 quake.) However, because Chile has been preparing for the big one for decades, few major buildings collapsed in 2010, even close to the epicenter in the Bio Bío region, and most of those who died did so as a result of the tsunami which inevitably followed the quake.

CNN kept showing photos of the same two buildings in Concepción, because those were just about the only major buildings to collapse in the whole country. Stringent building codes for the win; all those rollers and springs that Chilean builders are required to install in foundations really work.

So, a 4.7 at 2:20 in the AM is not a big deal, even when the building feels like a ship at sea for a few minutes. Our friend Zane says that when the 8.8 hit in 2010, at 3:34 in the morning, it shook for thee minutes in rolling waves, and that people living high up in apartment buildings experienced 15 minutes of swaying. What a ride!

Finally, I have to say that I’m glad we’re on the 17th floor of an 18-floor building. I have a horror of being trapped alive under rubble, unable to move my limbs, waiting days to be dug out or die. I’m not especially claustrophobic, just a person with an over-active imagination, and no desire to be crushed to death. Better to fall to my death from my bed than that.