Student escapes injury in quake

Vanessa Marcano

Vanessa Marcano

“I woke up to the sound of a semi truck heading straight toward my room. When I looked up, I saw the chandelier above my head shaking violently. At first, I had no idea what was going on, and then suddenly I thought to myself, ‘This is an earthquake.’ I quickly jumped out of my bed and ran underneath the doorway in my bedroom to take cover.”

On Feb. 27, at 3:36 a.m., Justin Geraets – a political science, global studies and Spanish major from Dell Rapids, S.D. – was in Santiago, Chile, when an 8.8-magnitude earthquake, the seventh strongest in recorded history, struck the South American nation.

Though the earthquake’s epicenter was off the shore of Concepción, about 200 miles southwest of Santiago, Geraets said Chilean authorities estimated the magnitude at which it was felt in Santiago at 7.5 on the Richter scale.

The strong temblor set off a tsunami that greatly impacted the Juan Fernandez and Easter Islands off Chile. The wave killed more than 300 in the town of Constitucion and was felt in Hawaii, where little damage was reported.

So far, there have been more than 700 reported casualties, and 2 million are displaced. The weekend of the earthquake, the country’s main airport and subway system, located in the capital, were closed, and transportation was limited across the territory due to extensive damage, including collapsed bridges and destroyed roads.

At around 4 a.m. on the day of the quake, Geraets – who is spending the spring semester studying abroad in Chile – and his host mother went to the street to check up on neighbors and other study-abroad students living nearby.

“Being on the street was very surreal. I will never forget the complete darkness and dust that layered the street,” he said.

Communications and electricity were down for two hours, and by then the city was already feeling strong aftershocks, Geraets said.

“I felt a little vertigo. My body did not trust the stability of the ground anymore, and I had a fear in the pit of my stomach,” Geraets said.

More than 50 aftershocks over magnitude 5 followed throughout the weekend, including one at 6.9.

“This disaster had struck Santiago with great power but completely wiped out cities only 100 miles from here,” said Geraets.

After 10 a.m., Geraets was finally able to reach his friends and family in the U.S., via Skype and Facebook.

“Five people dead became 100 people dead then 214 people, then 314, and then 708. … At breakfast, my host mom kept repeating that we need to thank God that we are safe.”

He said all 36 study-abroad study-abroad students from different American schools are accounted for.

The next day, Geraets left the apartment to walk around and take photographs of the aftermath.

“Glass and brick lined the main walkways of the city … entire sides of buildings collapsed onto the street, service workers trying to fix the broken water lines, people sleeping on beds and in tents, and an eerie calm,” he said.

He said that the only action in the city came from supermarkets, where he saw hundreds lining up for blocks waiting to get food and water.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared certain areas “catastrophe zones” and sent army troops into some of the most damaged places to restore order and aid in search and recovery missions. There are reports of widespread looting across the country. While some people were looking for basic necessities such as food, water or baby diapers, others were seen running off with television sets or even trying to break into banks.

“There are curfews (11 p.m. – 6 a.m.) for many cities throughout Chile,” Geraets said. “My host mom mentioned that Chileans are used to curfews due to those imposed by Pinochet just two decades ago.”

Scientists at NASA said the Chilean earthquake even affected the length of the day, shortening it by 1.26 microseconds. Earthquakes can make Earth rotate faster by moving mass closer to its axis, said Richard Gross, a research scientist in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs. According to NASA, the temblor likely shifted Earth’s axis by three inches.

“Chileans are good at picking up their heads and moving forward. It is going to be a long process to clean up the country, but signs of normality are beginning to come back,” said Geraets, who is scheduled to return to SDSU in the summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.