Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Big What If

I was vacationing in Chile having a great time when the earthquake hit. It was a whopper—8.5. It was a rolling earthquake and lasted several minutes.

Plaza Sotomayor

I was at a show celebrating the Fiesta de Independencia, The Independence Day in Chile. The show was outside in Plaza Sotomayor, which is right by the Pacific Ocean. Everyone remained seated, but I noticed that people were turning around.

The water was behind us.

Tsunami.

A policeman got up on stage, and while I didn’t understand him fully, there was no mistaking his tone and the word, “tsumani.”

We got up quickly and began walking towards the nearby tsunami evacuation route. We had taken pictures of the sign laughing. We weren’t laughing now.

The sirens started blaring and our phone weather alerts started chiming. “Tsumani warning.” There were a lot of people at the show so it took an eternity to get to the stairs. Every second felt like a minute as we made our way over and up. Over and over in my head, I thought, “I will be ok.. I will be ok.. I will be ok.” I didn’t allow a single other thought in my head. I couldn’t.

And up. And up.

Valparaiso is very hilly, similar to San Francisco, CA. In ten minutes or so we were fairly high, and made it to the “Tsunami safe zone.”

Then an aftershock hit. It was around a 6.5.

Up we went, higher and higher. The hills that seemed so steep that morning felt level under our feet.

We finally made it to a large open area where there were several hundred people, a fire truck and several policemen. We figured we were high enough.

We were careful to stand near no buildings just in case a larger earthquake hit, and got on our phones to let people know we were ok. At least, we thought we were.

Then our phones died, along with our connection to our world. Our safe world–which, until that time, was not only our lifeline, but we were doing our best to keep our friends and loved ones from worrying. Now we went dark, and were concerned about what they would think.

We waited outside for hours. The sirens stopped but no one left the area. Around 11, it was getting cold and we were getting tired, so we decided to find a café to sit down in for a bit. We walked for around 15 minutes before finding a pizzeria. I got a glass of wine. I jokingly said that if this might be my last meal, I would enjoy some wine. And pizza. The hell with my wheat-free diet. I was going to have gluten and I was going to enjoy it.

I did.

We left at around 1 am and the area we were previously in was empty except for the fire truck. Someone in our group (we met a woman from Australia, and a young couple from Germany that we were hanging out with) asked one of the firemen if it was safe to go down. We were told it should be, so down we went.

We dropped the German couple off at their hostel and went down to our hotel by the water. Staying on the water was so cool just a day earlier. Now it was terrifying.

Valpo17

The doors were locked. The lights were out. There was no note.

We made our way back up the hill and banged on the hostel door, yelling the German man’s name. Thankfully, they were staying in the room right by the door, and let us in. There were open beds, so we had a safe place to sleep for the night.

Safe. It’s hard to define safe in this environment. But safe at that time was not sleeping on the street.

We were able to charge one phone and get messages out, and tried to sleep. A few minutes later we heard a sound that seemed like waves crashing. We bolted up and to the window in a panic. A woman was outside talking on her phone, and a car was making its way down the cobblestone street. It was that sound that we heard.

We did finally sleep for a few hours, and left when the owner of the place arrived, after sharing our story and paying her for the beds. She kindly offered us breakfast and no charge, but we insisted for her kindness.

The hotel refunded the night, but had nothing to say about not leaving a note, or even having a policy as to what to do in a tsunami warning. Apparently they have them frequently.

That morning as we tried to nap, we could feel the building sway. We felt several aftershocks, and there were 7 in the 24 hours after the earthquake rating over a 6.0. The next morning we were woken by one. When we went outside, everyone was milling around as if nothing happened. It was calm and peaceful on the harbor.

Pratt Harbor day after

A day after I returned home, I woke abruptly to a bad dream and started to cry. That’s when it really hit me. We were on edge for the two days we remained in Chile, so I never let my guard down to really process.

The whole night was terrifying. We didn’t know if a wave would crash over our heads, or if the earth under our feet could crumble. We didn’t know, and had no control. The sound of the siren’s wail, the slow shuffle of feet, the anxious chatter in a language I didn’t much understand, and the inability to connect with anyone I care for.

It will be ok. It will be ok. It will be ok.

Thankfully, all I have is some anxiety and a killer story. Nothing happened to us and we were ok. Some miles up the coast, a town was devastated and 15 were dead. We were truly lucky.

What a way to get in touch with gratitude.

In the days since, things don’t seem to bother me as much anymore. Things that would have set my teeth on edge don’t seem to matter. It’s not an earthquake, it’s not a tsunami.

I realize that I have so very much to be grateful for, and that I have an opportunity to learn from, and benefit from, this experience.

A week later and I have finally stopped processing between the hours of two and four am. I no longer wake in a panic, trying to run. I wake up knowing I’m safe, and feeling ever so grateful for it.

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