There has to be a Morning After

The morning after shed light onto a new way of life. In the matter of three minutes, the Earth had changed life as we had come to know and enjoy it. Gone were the conveniences that made human life human. No electricity, no gas, no running water, no phone, no fuel (no gas stations, pumps can’t pump without electric), no grocery stores, no drug stores, no public transportation, no contact with the outside world (save for battery run radios), no medical care in many communities, no shelter for many, no immediate help… the list of “no’s” ran on. All that remained was the question, “how does one survive after surviving a major disaster.”

Sergio and I were among the lucky ones. Our home still stood, we had fuel in the gas tank, food in the fridge, freezer and pantry, bottled water, candles, a battery radio, a gas grill, and thankfully, enough prescriptions to last for months. We were also already conditioned to live primitively, after having spent a week camping. Most importantly, we still had each other, as well as family and friends. We had the most important things in place.

Four years of living in Oklahoma had taught me to be very self-sufficient. The nearest grocery store had been 45 minutes away, so I had learned to keep a stocked pantry, to prepare virtually anything from scratch, and to grow and store my own vegetables, nuts and fruit. I learned to provide my own entertainment and to help provide for the wellbeing of neighbors and friends. Living a simple life was no mystery. Even though modern conveniences were gone, I knew that we would pull through. It was just a matter of adapting until some semblance of regular living would be restored.

During the first couple of days after the quake, we lived a communal life with friends from the university. We slept in a common area, shared meals, found ways to pass the time, and most importantly, helped to keep one another calm as the tremors continued to shake our world.

In all of the “disaster programs” that aired in the United States before our move to Chile, none ever fully described the violent convulsions that occurred long after the initial quake. Calling them “aftershocks” does not do them justice, and seems euphemistic. I much prefer the Spanish “replica” for they are indeed close replications to the major one.

On the third day after the quake, the mood of the city began turned ugly. Reports of ransacking filtered the news. Mobs were plundering the grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and eventually any other business that could be broken into.  While we had found comfort in the company of good friends, the change in civil order made it necessary to head home.

We had been staying with Juan Carlos and Corelia, whose house was on the edge of Concepcion. Driving back to the university district, we were able to fully witness and photograph humanity at its basest form. The bread company around the corner from our friends’ neighborhood was being looted. People had broken through the gate, and were carrying or dragging plastic bins and trays loaded with pre-packaged goods.

Groups of men stood around fill valves at the COPEC and Shell gas stations, waiting to siphon the fuel with long rubber tubes. Others broke into the stations’ convenience stores, dragging even office furniture away. I watched as three men, further down the road, tried to push a commercial desk through a house door that was obviously too small.

While waiting for Sergio to retrieve a propane tank from his Mom’s apartment, I sat in the car and watched throngs of people pushing Lider and Santa Isabel grocery carts past. At that point, I stopped photographing, fearing retaliation. My camera could put faces to the crimes. The mobs would eventually burn all but one grocery to the ground, and a comment was made that they were like jackal, urinating where they ate.

It wasn’t until the fourth day that the military was brought in to restore civil order. Up until that time, residents were forced to organize their own bands of protection. Many street entrances were barricaded with whatever materials could be found. Round-the-clock neighborhood watches were established virtually everywhere. Several apartment buildings and private homes shared in the protection of our own neighborhood. At night, bonfires were set up to light the streets. Men carried lanterns and means of protection as they walked the perimeters.

When the military first rolled their way down our street, people stood on their balconies cheering. I looked down the face of our building and could see all the hands clapping. It reminded me of a standing ovation at a grand theatre. I thought about how proud and perhaps surprised the militia must have felt as they drove by. More than two decades of the Pinochet dictatorship had soured public opinion of military force in civilian settings.

Curfew, known as “toque de queda,” was set in place from that night on, and wouldn’t be lifted until more than a month later. Sergio and I stopped at the hospital to offer volunteer support, and were issued permanent passes to allow us to walk home freely after curfew.  With the military in place, we felt quite safe traversing the streets at night.

In addition to the hospital, we went to several other organizations to offer assistance. While the departing national government had been slow to act, the common person had organized quickly to bring relief to those in need. University students gathered and distributed food to communities devastated by tsunamis. Another group offered transportation. Neighbor worked with neighbor to dig out from under the debris. It was incredible to witness the city and regions pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Even more inspiring was to see how people could bond together in times of great need.

Although fatigue was beginning to set in by the fifth day after the quake, we were still unable to sleep easily or soundly. Replicas, some as strong as 6.7, continued to convulse the earth. We could usually expect at least one great shake late at night, followed by an early wake-up call.

To make the evenings more bearable, we held nightly dinner gatherings. Dinner de jure was served by candlelight, to the accompaniment of Bio Bio Radio. Cards and conversations continued until early morning hours, and it was not unusual to have guests remain until curfew was over.

When the loss of electricity compelled a massive clearing of the two freezers, we planned a grand carnivore buffet. Post-doc students and family-by-choice, Mauricio and Kirsty told us about a young man from the States who was living in their building and seemed to be wandering around like a lost puppy. Without hesitation, Barrett and his mother Cindy, who happened to be visiting from Chicago during the quake, were quickly invited to the table.

We feasted on various cuts of lamb, pork and beef, grilled under the Chilean moonlight. Although there were no veggies, a huge pot of Jasmine rice made a beautiful compliment to the meat. Dinner was started with the opening of the last three bottles of wine, and by the evening’s end, the remaining bottles of alcohol graced the table as well. We drank and talked to our hearts content, and finally found some emotional and “spiritual” release from the stress of living in post-quake Concepcion. It was just what we needed to shake off the dust.

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