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In Chile's Earthquake, Smith Alumna Steps Forward to Help

Editor's Note: Smith women are part of the global community. A recent dispatch from Rachel Miller '09 illustrates that. Not long after graduation she was living in Europe. She was visiting Santiago, Chile, in February when she experienced the 8.8-magnitude earthquake, which killed more than 795 people. Here is her account:

The earthquake came at 3:34 a.m. on Saturday, February 27, and lasted for almost two minutes. I was in Chile to visit my friend Claudio Canales, and after a trip to Patagonia we were back in Santiago, staying with his mother Eliana Rios in her street-level suburban home. I had a ticket to fly home the following Monday, but that all changed when the quake came.

I was asleep when Claudio pulled me from my bed and led me to the house's main doorway, theoretically the safest place to be, and I stood there in little more than my skivvies, mouth open, slowly regaining consciousness. I saw the dining room table go vertical and felt the walls flapping like sheets on a line. The cupboards flew open and spat out glasses like Chiclets. Plants and figurine angels and ancestral crystal tilted together in the air and fell in a heaving crash to the tile floor. There was a thunderous grind all around; the earth was moving.

It made me feel like a small bean afloat in space.

Some of the damage caused by the earthquake of February 27, to the Divina Providencia Church in Santiago (top) and and an office building in Concepcion City, Chile.

We spent the following day in front of the television watching the news, and that night I biked around Santiago's suburbs. In some sectors the streetlights were still out, and in others, where electricity was restored, televisions pulsed blue. It was quiet and warm. The full moon spread a swampy, bottled green light over the city, lighting up the newly shaken dust and the rubble, illuminating what no one wanted to see.

On the coast, fish were beached in living rooms, and inland whole adobe villages were flattened. Everywhere industries were set back at least five years. Eliana's house survived, but elsewhere in Santiago brand new high-rise apartments were condemned due to internal damage.

Nothing was so devastating or ominous as the subsequent mental unraveling that took place all over Chile, enhanced and televised by an overeager media. People were terrified and utterly powerless. As a sort of therapy, they spent hours in front of the television, watching their own tragedy being broadcast. This heightened self-awareness bred a raggedy, viral psychosis that writhed its way into everything.

I woke on Sunday to more news. All flights leaving Santiago's airport were cancelled until further notice, and images showed the airport's entire second level in pieces on the main floor. If I wanted to leave, I could take a bus to Peru or Argentina, or I could simply wait.

Grocery and department stores around Chile were being ransacked. While news crews stood by with trucks full of equipment, dressed in impeccably dry-cleaned suits, victims carted away mattresses, diapers, water, flip-flops—anything they could get their hands on. There were no police. I sat trapped in Santiago, feeling the first creeps of psychosis, and I told Claudio if we didn't do something to help I would lose my senses.

That Monday at work (Government of Chile, Division of Agricultural Development) Claudio spoke with his friend Fernando Cabrera. Cabrera had grown up in Nilahue Cornejo, a tiny adobe town located six hours south of Santiago toward the epicenter of the quake. An unbelievable 80 percent of the houses had crumbled flat, and no one had arrived yet with aid. Fernando was there with his family and told us to come as soon as possible.

When we arrived in Nilahue two days later, Fernando had been working constantly and would continue indefinitely. Later he said it was like a vortex: he got up in the morning, moved from house to house, and did what he could to fight immobility and insanity. He couldn't sleep at night because the aftershocks were so frequent and so powerful. "Worse was the sound," he told me, "the crushing that made you think a volcano could shoot up right next to you. It was horrible. I was so scared, I lost 8 kilos in 11 days."

It was dusty and lung-burningly hot as we salvaged tiles from the roof of a house owned by Esmeralda Castro and Roberto Rojas. The tiles were heavy, expensive and needed to be removed to reconstruct a new home, but they also posed a threat because of their enormous weight—in a strong aftershock, they would pull down the rest of the house. I sat 30 feet above the ground, on the roof, praying for stillness as I yanked tiles out from under 100 years of moss and the occasional petrified mouse.

Roberto told us he woke up the night of the quake with ceiling on his face and showed us the gash on his head where the doorway collapsed on him. His 23-year-old granddaughter Francisca moved back from Santiago to help, and when I asked when she might return to the city and her job, she just looked around and shook her head. In the yard there was a television, some paintings and a few boxes all tucked under a tarp. "That's what they have left," she said. "And the tiles."

My flight left two weeks later from a makeshift airport. A single table held alphabetically organized boarding passes, and there were just two terminals, both housed under white party tents. I bought a coffee and the boy asked me, "For here or to go?" I looked around and behind me were the tarmac, the white tents and a small patch of grass. There were no chairs or tables. "Never mind," he murmured.

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