Tuesday, April 5, 2011

From the Epicenter: Chile, One Year Later (2)

Among and around excursions to Talca’s stunning Andean backcountry, which I described in a recent post, I visited two of the cities most affected by the 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami: Talca itself, and the port of Constitución. Here, even more than in Concepción, the impact of the event is palpable, with vacant lots and damaged or destroyed landmarks, not to mention ordinary businesses and houses in a region whose traditional adobe architecture has been seismically vulnerable for centuries.

In the course of my week-plus in the Maule region, I spoke extensively with Franz Schubert of Trekking Chile, who used his Casa Chueca guest house as an informal base for relief efforts; in fact, his guests chose to forego the rest of their vacations to chip in with assistance. I recorded my conversations with Franz, which also touch on several other topics, but it will be some weeks before I’ll have time to transcribe, edit and post them.

Talca itself suffered more than any other place of its size that I’ve seen - there are many vacant lots, and in some places only segments of old adobe walls stand, with rubble still to be removed (demolition and debris removal appear to be the growth industries here). The landmark school near the new pedestrian mall, divided into separate wings for boys and girls, is due to come down; there is local sentiment to restore it, but it looks beyond repair - or at least beyond economic repair.

On a visit to the regional Sernatur tourist office, I spoke with my longtime friend Verónica Morgado, whose rented B&B crumbled in the quake, but she and her husband managed to get all their guests out safely. They are building a replacement, which they expect to open for next season at year’s end.

Verónica’s elderly mother was not so fortunate even if, in one sense, she was more fortunate. Out of town for the weekend, she avoided the collapse of her 19th-century adobe, but its psychological impact was even more powerful. She fell mute after the event and, failing to respond to therapy, died shortly thereafter. Obviously, this wasn’t a direct fatality, but the quake certainly appears to have been a contributing factor.

Still, Talca is rebuilding. Its most hopeful precedent may be the city of Chillán, whose massive 1939 earthquake (8.3 on the Richter) left the city’s face transformed forever - like Talca, Chillán lost nearly all of its historic adobes, and had to rebuild almost from scratch. A year ago, though, it got through the quake with little damage, despite the greater magnitude and its own proximity to the epicenter.

Constitución may have a longer road ahead. The port city, best known for its pulp plant, suffered a double hit. The quake flattened many of its older houses and toppled some of the walls of its landmark church, but here the human tragedy was even worse: as the tsunami worked its way up the Río Maule estuary, it swept away more than a hundred campers who were celebrating the end of summer on Isla Orrego, a small wooded island (pictured above). The waters even reached the Plaza de Armas but, astonishingly, spared the Hostería Constitución opposite the island.

A few km south, at the port of Maguillines, the tsunami wiped out several large warehouses and perhaps a dozen seaside restaurants, a couple of which have rebuilt. The winding road there, though, shows what Constitución still has to offer. Spectacular igneous stacks have resisted the ocean’s erosive force and one of them, Piedra de la Iglesia (pictured above), is covered with nesting pelicans, gulls and cormorants plus, on its lower levels, southern sea lions basking in the sun. Just beyond road’s end, Playa Maguillines features other granite outcrops - some vertical pitches would offer challenging sport to adventurous free climbers - and outstanding perches for ocean fishermen.


Lisa said...

I had heard that Chillán's Escuela México and its murals by Siquieros and Guerrero had suffered some damage in the 2010 earthquake. Was the restoration completed or how's it going?


Wayne Bernhardson said...

Lisa, the school is closed to the public at the moment as the murals undergo restoration - something they needed long before the earthquake happened. I don't know whether there was any quake damage to the murals, but they are due to reopen later this year.

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