The devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile this weekend, killing more than 700 people, hit close to home for many members of the USC community, particularly four USC students studying abroad in Santiago who had been there less than two weeks and students with family in Chile.
The four USC students, Andres Blumer, a junior majoring in international relations (global business); Kaitlin King, a junior majoring in anthropology; Marianna Singwi-Ferrono, a junior majoring in Spanish and international relations; and Ryan Soderberg, a junior majoring in business administration, survived uninjured, but said the hours after the quake hit Santiago were dizzying. Because phone and power lines were out, the members of the group had a hard time communicating with each other and with their families in the United States.
For students with family members in Chile, communication was just as difficult. Cell phone lines were down, and many residents of Chile do not have land lines.
Answers trickled in slowly for both groups.
The four students verified that everyone in the group was OK but only after driving around Santiago to find each other. Students in Los Angeles confirmed their family members’ safety but only after long hours wrought with anxious anticipation. And though their immediate questions were answered and their concerns quelled, for many there is still a felling of uncertainty.
Experiencing history abroad
The city of Santiago, north of the earthquake’s epicenter, is at a relative standstill. Residents are staying in, buildings are damaged, roads are closed and public transportation is down. The four students, who have been in Chile less than two weeks, are not sure when they’ll return to school, when they’ll be able to use their cell phones again and, for some of them, when they will have power.
Just more than 24 hours ago, the city was shaking.
Blumer, one of the four students in Chile, was staying at an apartment in a Santiago suburb, north of the earthquake’s epicenter. He was sleeping peacefully, he said, until the shaking began.
The walls shook. The floor rumbled. The sound of glass breaking was muffled by the screeches of car alarms going off all down the street. Blumer had to hold on to avoid crashing to the floor. Amid the chaos of the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of Chile early Saturday morning, the four USC students studying abroad found themselves thrust into a the heart of disaster.
The students are all living in separate homes in the suburbs of Santiago. Waking up to the earth’s violent shaking, they were forced to navigate the catastrophe with no power, no familiar faces and with few people who spoke their native language.
Blumer said his neighbors gathered to make sure everyone was accounted for, but everyone was speaking fast and with an accent it couldn’t quite cut through. Even the radio news, he said, “was all very fast and in Spanish so hard for me to understand.”
He did not know the full extent of the damage until the electricity came back later in the morning and he could turn on the news.
Cell phone lines were also down, and other members of the group could not reach Blumer.
“My host family and I drove to Andres Blumer’s house to make sure he was safe, since I couldn’t reach him by phone,” Soderberg wrote in an e-mail. “I was happy to find him smoking a cigarette with the rest of his apartment building.”
Blumer, who was lucky enough to get Internet and power back within a few hours of the earthquake, e-mailed his parents and the parents of the other students in Chile to assure them that everyone was OK.
Although the situation became clearer as the day went on and worry turned to relief as the students connected with each and their families, the chaos did not end there.
Aftershocks, some reaching magnitudes above 6.5, continued to shake the city. Power remained out in many areas, and students were told to stay in their houses. Most of the city’s police force has been called to areas that have been worse hit and the city has become prone to crime.
Though Santiago fared better than other areas, Blumer said, the news reports have put the disaster in context for the four USC students.
“It’s just starting to hit me that we … just lived through history,” Blumer wrote.
A world away
They got the news first by phone.
Natalia Bogolasky Fliman, a graduate student studying journalism, first heard from her friend in New York, who had been on the phone with someone in Chile at the time the earthquake hit. Cristina Pandol, a senior majoring in psychology, got the CNN news update on her cell phone.
The news came first, but information about their family members came later.
Pandol said she first called her mom, who had been trying to get in touch with family members. Pandol began calling too, but because cell phones were down it took an hour and a half before she got to anyone.
“I was lucky I could talk to my dad only an hour or an hour and a half after the earthquake happened and I could hear from him and he was okay,” she said.
Bogolasky Fliman was able to reach her family within an hour and a half, she said, and verified that everyone was OK.
Both natives of Chile, Bogolasky Fliman and Pandol said earthquakes are a common occurrence, but this one was different.
“This is huge,” Bogolasky Fliman said. “Even though if you grow up in Chile you’re used to waking up in the middle of the night with tremors, this was stronger and longer.”
But Chile’s history of earthquakes, Pandol said, might have been what helped keep so many people safe.
In 1960, a catastrophic 9.6-magnitude earthquake struck Chile. Since then, earthquake preparedness has been a priority for the country.
“Anything that would have fallen fell in 1960, and anything that’s been built since then has had top-notch earthquake stability,” Pandol said. “Everything has been to prepare for another 9.6 and this was an 8.8, which is still really large, but it’s not a 9.6 and we’ve been preparing for a 9.6 since 1960 … Everyone knows what to do.”
Although Pandol’s and Bogolasky Fliman’s friends and family survived unharmed, Pandol said some of her family members are still lacking water, gas and power.
Two of Pandol’s aunts live in Santiago, but only one has power. The two families have banded together, bathing in one’s swimming pool, since there is still no water.
Still, Pandol and Bogolasky Fliman are grateful their families were not further south, close to Concepción.
“Some highways in [Santiago] are damaged, some of my friends’ houses are really damaged, but in Santiago it’s not as bad as cities in the south like Concepción,” Bogolasky Fliman said. “Things are really far from being normal but it’s not as bad as it is in the South.”
The road ahead
The earthquake has left 700 dead and two million displaced so far. Roads are closed and power and gas lines still down. The aftershocks have faded, but the uncertainty is only growing.
The four USC students have found their experience changed dramatically, and there’s no indication as to when it might return to a comfortable routine.
“Things right now are pretty crazy as people are vandalizing and ransacking supermarkets,” Soderberg wrote. “The U.S. Embassy has notified us saying that we are not allowed to leave Santiago. My host family says I am only allowed to leave during the day.”
Tracey Seslen, an assistant professor of clinical finance and business economics who has lived in Chile and traveled there with student groups, said the country will rebound once the initial shock has passed.
“In my opinion, Chile is the most first-world of the countries in Latin America,” Seslen said. “I think they’re going to recover from this in a fairly short period of time.”
That recovery time might not be quick enough for the group of USC Marshall School of Business students slated to head to Chile over spring break to make their trip, however.
“There’s a group of freshmen in [Learning about International Commerce (LINC) Program] going to be going over spring break, and I would bet that they’re not going to be able to go,” Seslen said. “I saw pictures of the airport, which I’ve been to many, many times, and it looked like a disaster area.”
The students in the program don’t know any more than what they have heard on the news. Several students said they hadn’t heard anything from the program, and one had spoken with the organizer but still didn’t have a definitive answer.
Despite the questions that remain, the USC students with family in Chile and those studying abroad in Chile said they are simply thankful that the worst has passed.
“It is great to know that the Trojan Family exists outside of USC,” Soderberg wrote.
Correction: Tracey Seslen was originally identified as Teresa Selsen.