Aftershocks during change of Government
Midday on the 11th of March, 2010 in the Chilean Congress building in the city of Valparaiso, 120 kilometres on the coast from Santiago, there was to be a change of mandate ceremony where the outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and her government would be handing over power to the new incoming President of Chile, Sebastian Piñera and his government. Gathered in the Congress building for the ceremony were all the important government dignitaries, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference, the Crown Prince of Spain and the presidents of many neighbouring countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay.
Eleven minutes before the ceremony was due to begin, at 11.49 am, there was a strong aftershock at 7.2 on the Richter scale whose epicentre was at Rancagua 100 kilometres south of Santiago. This was followed by another strong aftershock at 11.55 am of 6.9 on the Richter Scale. Four minutes later there was a third aftershock of 6.1 on the Richter Scale and 20 minutes later a fourth aftershock of 4.2. on the Richter Scale. All afternoon we have had many aftershocks including one at 4.28 pm of 5.8 on the Richter scale. Like many people this afternoon, I myself began to wonder every so often whether the furniture was shaking again or was I imagining it.
Immediately after these big aftershocks, the Chilean Government Emergency Service that monitors Earthquake and Tsunamis, issued a Tsunami warning for 1500 kilometres of Chilean coast from Coquimbo 450 kilometres north of Santiago to Puerto Montt 1000 kilometres south of Santiago.
Later in the afternoon today, this Tsunami Alert was lifted. Before this alert was lifted, tens of thousands of terrified people from all along the coast had fled to the higher ground. Many people fled in panic crying and screaming. Schools in low lying coastal areas were closed and evacuated. The city centre of Valparaiso had to be evacuated as did all the other low lying areas of coastal cities and towns. In all these coastal towns, still recovering from the tsunami on February 27th, police helped to evacuate the remaining population especially children, the elderly and handicapped people up into the hills in case a tsunami occurs.
Office workers and apartment dwellers in Santiago and other cities ran out onto the street from their multi-story buildings. The first hour of the mandate of the new president, Sebastian Piñera was characterized by panic and chaos on the streets. Workers especially parents who have young children were sent home earlier today.
The change of government ceremony in the Congress building had to be cut short and the building evacuated quickly. The large crowd gathered at the beginning of the ceremony had disappeared in the hills as the new president and dignitaries came out of the building. It is being said by the local press that the President of Argentina, Cristiana Fernandez grabbed the hand of the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe in panic during one of the strong aftershocks. The Congress building is only several hundred metres from the coastline.
People are already very nervous from the large earthquake and tsunami on February the 27th. Today’s strong aftershocks caused more structural damage to the thousands of homes, buildings and highways already damaged. Thousands of people are already terrified of returning to their homes and are sleeping outdoors in tents cities.
Here in the Columban Centre House in Santiago, Columbans and staff all ran out into the garden area for the first aftershock and then again five minutes later for the second powerful aftershock. All of us, including myself were quite frightened and anxious as the buildings and the ground shook around us. What frightens one is the fact that one does not know whether or not the earthquake one is experiencing will get much more powerful and dangerous and when it will finish.
Parents of young children in school or adults with elderly parents or relatives such as our staff members at the Centre House today, immediately became concerned and anxious for their loved ones and did everything to try to contact them. The telephone system broke down from every one trying to make calls to loved ones.
How are we Columbans and other priests and lay workers coping with all of this? We have been advised by psychologists working for the Catholic Church to attend to our own fears and anxieties before trying to help anyone else. We need to acknowledge and express our fears and anxieties before the lack of control one feels in an earthquake.
What many of us are doing in our parish meetings and gatherings is to begin all of our meetings giving the people an opportunity to express their fears. Many of the parents in evening parish meetings I have attended since the earthquake tell me that small children are too frightened to sleep alone and want to sleep with their parents or at least sleep with the lights on. Some children are too frightened to go to school. I have noticed a number of children coming to our evening meetings this week, because they are too afraid to stay at home.
I have heard of other parents looking for a different kindergarten or school for their children because the buildings of their previous one s do not look secure to them. As a result of the earthquake and aftershocks, other people I know start to get feelings of panic inside buildings and very nervous if one closes a door with them inside. One young man who was visiting his elderly parents south of Santiago when the big earthquake came and severely damaged their home, told me that for the first few hours afterwards, he did everything possible in a very strong manner to help his parents and neighbours get settled and calm and find shelter. Once that had happened, he started shaking uncontrollably and vomiting. He was suffering post traumatic stress.
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