Japan’s Tsunami from Chilean Shores

Concón, Chile
March 11, 2011
No Swimming

While Tom has been online, I’ve been complaining over here in the corner. Only one plug for the internet connection means we can’t stay tuned to the world news simultaneously. I hate being the last to know what’s going on. And it’s a big news day following the earthquake and horrible tsunami in Japan.

I was thinking of the Golpe de Estado in Ecuador earlier today. We had no warning for that. In fact, I was expecting a bus strike. But this waiting for the local impact of the far-away earthquake comes with a surreal expectation of living through a moment in history, something everyone will remember. There’s a little thrill: be on the alert. The mood is intensified here because just two weeks ago the country marked the first anniversary of the quake and tsunami in south central Chile. Today, we’re certain of excitement, but also pretty certain of our safety.

We can afford to be buoyed by the excitement. But I remind myself the scope of the tsunami, across oceans, means that millions of people from all continents will be aware of the devastation in Japan and be more likely to help. (Our little coup in Ecuador was hardly noticed in North America.)

To prepare for the tsunami, I went surfing (c’mon, it was sunny), half-assed researched a story I’m working on, bought two bottles of wine, ditched plans to hop a bus to have dinner three beaches away, and ended up getting take-out at the local restaurant.  The mainstay dish here is empanada de ‘name-your-seafood,’ plus cheese.  Crabmeat and cheese, shrimp and cheese, clams and cheese.  We realized we weren’t going to catch a bus down the coast for dinner when a) no buses appeared, b) the beach’s only activity was tearing down structures and pulling in tables, c) surfers were called in before dark by a lifeguard’s whistle (who knew there were lifeguards here?), and d) the national guard swept the beach and streets on foot, on motorcycles, and in cars to make sure everyone was closing up.  The carabineros were enforcing the evacuation of the coast and­–more important to me–the closing of the restaurants.  Quickly, we placed an order to carry out, and ordered a couple Pisco Sours to bide the time.  When I ran across the street to pick up the special order of Tsunami wine, the guy in the bottle shop told me his place was higher than mine, and suggested I phone him.  I suggested that if he could see everything from his place, as he claimed, that he could alert the authorities if our apartment washed away. Or, I’d yell, “help” if I needed any, to which he wisely replied, “That would be useless.”

Local news is local news everywhere. It’s all so… self-centered! Although advised by the Chilean government to walk (no autos!) to 30 meters above sea level, this all remains an overblown exercise in precaution. Even last year’s tsunami didn’t reach the restaurant we just left.  We remain fixed on the epicenter, on Japan (via TV, of course), and on all the people directly impacted by the tragedy there. Having warning is a luxury they did not have. A year ago, the people of Chile, all up and down the coast from Concepción, had no warning.  Just last month, after a strong but lesser quake, they needed no warning, and laughed at interview questions suggesting warnings mattered. They knew, like dogs on the beach, to run, to run away.

After complaining about the tsunami hitting us at night, when we can’t see what’s going on, I was assured that we would be able to see it, from above, by moonlight. So we’re going to wait around. I don’t want you to think I’m being nonchalant.  We are prepared.  Note aforementioned bottles of wine. Dinner, check.  I took “before” pictures. I unbolted the door.  It opens to the uphill side, opposite our deck overlooking the bay.  Tom and I arranged a meeting point, across the street and up the stairs to the city hall offices.  (But wait, aren’t meeting places in case of fire?)  The TV news is repetitive, the hour is getting late, we drift off playing cards or watching NCIS, and…. Tomorrow everyone will laugh as they walk the beach, looking for signs of devastation washed ashore.

We walked out to the deck at the appointed hour, and both swore we saw the tsunami roll in. A foot? Less? It wasn’t until the next morning while we sipped our coffee that we suddenly saw the water recede, backing up twice as far as the lowest tide. It held there for a couple minutes, and then just as quickly moved up the shoreline to the highest level we’d seen all week. Witnessing a high and low tide sequence in the course of 10 minutes was a thrill. But the beach equipment that had been so quickly stowed was not replaced. It was the end of the season.

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