Experiencing the 8.8 Earthquake in Chile


This is a blow-by-blow dispatch of my Saturday. In subsequent posts I will offer a more analytical take on everything. Photos are from this incredible set of images on Boston.com of devastation in Chile.

At 1:45 AM on Saturday, February 27th, I slunk into bed. It had been a loud night. My neighbors had hosted a raucous birthday party which called for several renditions of Feliz Cumpleaños and various dance songs. Despite the noise, I actually enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Before turning out the light I read Isabel Allende's latest book, My Invented Country, a memoir about her growing up in Chile and eventually re-settling in California. She discusses the similarities of the two places. I read until 2:20 AM and then turned off the light and fell fast asleep with my windows open and the summer Santiago air breezing over me.

At 3:34 AM I awoke to my entire apartment shaking violently. My bed creaked and I heard a vase of flowers in my kitchen fall over. I did not mentally process or consciously think of anything, not even "earthquake," but I had an instinct to walk over to my desk and grab my laptop. [I'm not what it says that my first thought was to protect my laptop, but there you go.] Propped up on a stand I feared it would fall over the desk and break, and indeed it was going to do so shortly had I not grabbed it. I stood clutching my laptop. A sliding French style door that separates my living room / desk area from bedroom moved and hit me, so I backed up and leaned against the wall for support. The shaking continued for a bit more time and then stopped and everything was silent and dark. The power had gone out in my building so all white noise and power lights: gone. I heard no screams or sounds or anything. Just total black silence.

I put my laptop on the floor and got back into bed. The utter silence and stillness made it easy to fall asleep, and I suspect I was snoring away by 4 AM. Not long after, I awoke to shaking. This time it felt even more intense though technically reports show it was *only* a 6.3 size quake. My bed really rocked and seconds later I heard sirens outside. My power was still out. This is when I started getting scared.

After the second major aftershock ended, there was a joyous albeit brief stretch of stillness, and I heard my neighbor say, Gracias por Dios, Gracias por Dios. Then it started again. My bed gently rolled back and forth seemingly without stop, like I was in a boat on an ocean. I convinced myself my mind was playing tricks on me. Seriously. I pulled the sheets over me and tried to go back to sleep. But the sirens were non-stop.

I gave up on sleep and waited for my power to come back on. By 8 AM my power was on but internet down. I watched the local news reports about the earthquake. CNN was broadcasting exclusively Chile quake coverage. I realized this was going to be an international news story and that I needed to communicate my status to friends and family.

At 9 AM I walked out of my building in Providencia with my laptop searching for a free wi-fi signal. There was rubble and broken glass on every street but I did not see any major building damage. In an alleyway behind my street I found a free "dlink" network with a weak but working signal. My inbox showed a dozen "Are you OK?" notes — I would receive about 200 of those emails throughout the course of the day. I fired off some "Yes I'm fine" emails and then posted my first tweet of the day: "Friends, thanks for all your notes. I am safe in Santiago. It was a terrifying night. I am happy to be alive. More updates later."

Throughout the day I used Twitter to post updates. There are few English language people in Chile posting updates, including official journalists. The BBC has always been understaffed in Latin America. The New York Times' coverage was and continues to be astonishingly bad (they're still filing from Rio de Janeiro). LA Times is filing from Bogota. As a result, my tweets got picked up by lots of media outlets who asked if I could comment on the on-the-ground situation. I did interviews with the AP, BBC, and a live video interview with CNN in the afternoon. My main goal in the interviews was to dilute some of the usual media hysteria over natural disasters: most of the country has power, I said, most of the telecom is working, there is no looting, etc.

In the late afternoon, I walked around my neighborhood a bit more. The sky was a gray haze from a supposed chemical fire that had started downtown. Nevertheless, I was amazed at the tranquility of Santiago. Public buses full of people passed by. Cars drove calmly. People chatting on the streets. I ate dinner at my favorite local restaurant and it was full of people. Much of the rubble and glass I had seen earlier had already been picked up. The scene was such a contrast from the images on TV. I know what I saw was a million times better than what the scene is like more north in Santiago, or especially in Concepción and along the coast. Still it's a reminder that it's hard to generalize about a situation in an entire country, let alone in one city.

I went to bed at 9 PM having not slept since 4 AM. I wondered whether my bed would start to shake. It didn't. All was calm. I fell into a dreamless sleep.

I was woken at around 8:25 AM Sunday morning to another vigorous aftershock. According to one count, the 67th aftershock since the first nearly 24 hours earlier.


14 comments on “Experiencing the 8.8 Earthquake in Chile
  • Wow, thanks for writing this account. I am glad you are fine. I tuned in to your live interview with CNN yesterday, and it was interesting to hear you comparing Chile and California (is it coincidental you were reading Allende before the earthquake struck?).

    It is also interesting to me that the New York Times and other large media outlets have such minimal presence in Chile. Why do you suspect that is?

  • Eugene,

    All media outlets are strapped for cash, and historically Chile is not a
    newsmaker. The Haiti situation probably demanded / demands a lot of their
    extra resources right now as well.

  • Really glad to hear you’re okay. your updates were really helpful in understanding the situation. any idea if the interviews are available online?

  • Interesting point about the aftershocks being more terrifying than the main earthquake. The first/main earthquake is a surprise, but over quickly. The aftershocks create more fear due to the uncertainty and anxious expectation, kind of like a flinching effect.

  • Knew you were a powerful guy. But never thought you had what it took to shake the very geography…Pleased to note your well being…!

  • Amazing description of what happened. I´m embarrassed to say I didn´t know exactly what happened in Chile until two days later even though I leave in Santiago. Sooo sad, soo sad, Haiti, Chile, too much suffering. Thanks Ben for your comment.

  • 249-year earthquake cycles have been
    found which match large planet orbital
    cycles. At 249 years the large planets
    show whole and half cycles. Examples
    of repeat earthquakes would be SW Canada-
    1700 & 1949, Peru- 1619 & 1868, Japan
    (Tonankai)- 1605 & 1854 and Iran- 1727 &
    1976. Two earthquakes in Haiti in 1761
    would be analogues of the 2010 event.
    The 2010 Chile earthquake is a 175-year
    analogue to the 1835 earthquake experienced
    by Charles Darwin.

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