Cookbook Author, Blogger, Wine Tour Leader, and all around foodie Liz Caskey is a resident of Santiago, Chile, which felt the effects of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that occurred this past Saturday, February 27th. At the time of writing, more than 700 people have been reported killed in the quake and aftershocks have continued to frighten residents. The epicenter of the quake happened off the coast of Maule, not far from the city of Concepción, which has seen the most damage. Media reports in the United States keep referring to the devastation in Southern Chile (in my opinion Southern Chile starts south of Temuco) and give the impression of a total collapse of infrastructure. Here Caskey answers a few questions about what is actually going on:
New World Review: How bad was the damage from the earthquake in Santiago? How is the cleanup going? Has tourism been affected?
Liz Caskey: Damage in Santiago is relatively mild although you would never gather that from the news. They seemed to have gathered the structures that did sustain significant damage as a representation of the state of the city. I can assure you this is NOT accurate. Roadways were hurt with some walkways and ramps collapsing. In some cases some landslides reported. The airport terminal took a severe beating although structurally remained in tact with the exception of one getty. The area of the city west of the downtown, Barrio Brasil (I actually lived here in a loft for 5 years!), had many turn-of-the-century homes, a lot of which were in extremely deteriorated conditions. Many of these literally crumbled along with the already battered Basilica del Salvador which had damage from the last major quake in 1985. The new buildings collapsing in Maipu are unbelievable. Since so many new constructions have gone up, supposedly all with the earthquake building codes which are extremely strict, these real estate giants who shoddily built these are going to have hell to pay. The good thing is, they can now gauge how to make the building codes even more stringent.
My neighborhood in the eastern part of the city had NO visible damage. In fact, I only had four champagne flutes break and some rattled nerves. It really depends on the construction of the building and area of the city. Santiago though escaped relatively with few scrapes and scars. Clean-up has started. They reported on the local news this morning that 100% of the city has water, 98% electricity which means cell phones and land phones are working along with internet. In my area, I had electricity within one hour of the quake and subsequent blackout. Effectively my life never really changed, thankfully, although we are so aware of the images on the news. Driving around, you must be prudent to not accelerate since there are some uneven areas in the pavement. There are detours around damaged roads. Route 68 to the coast is open and Route 5 north in decent condition. Heading south though, the problems become more apparent although roads still passable, albeit broken in some areas and slow.
The airport was closed for 1.5 days after the quake due to the terminal damage although the runways sustained NO damage. Flights are normalizing now and LAN announced it will be taking no new reservations until after March 7 until all its passengers are in the destinations they need to be. In fact, we just received word from a client who was here for the quake and headed to Patagonia that she’s leaving this morning. Normalcy is coming back quickly. In terms of tourism, I think the international media and the US Embassy are doing a huge disservice to Chile by creating a paranoia in travelers. They are essentially boxing in the whole country (whose length is from Boston to LA in terms distance) into the catastrophe area and it is simply not accurate. That represents 1/7 or so. The north, Santiago, Viña del Mar, and the south from the Lakes district to Patagonia are normal and functioning. In our business, culinary & wine tourism, we are helping our clients who couldn’t fly out due to the earthquake find solutions. In parts of Colchagua to the south which sustained damage in the wineries, our contacts asked for a week or two to normalize. But in the areas close to Santiago like the Casablanca and Maipo valleys, wineries are open and receiving our guests. Like I said, it is very relative. I hope the media though shows the rebuilding effort and not painting this desparate picture. Honestly, that image can do more damage to Chile internationally than the quake itself. March is one of the highest months for tourism in Chile. Please see my blog post “Why Now is Still the Time to Visit Santiago–and Chile.”
NWR: Media reports in the States make it seem as if the entire South of Chile has been devastated? Where is there damage?
LC: The damage extends from the areas of Puerto Saavedra (west of Temuco) up through Concepción, Parral, Talca, and Santa Cruz. The closer to the epicenter, between Talca and Concepción, the worse the situation. The coastal villages along the coast of these areas are devastated due to 3 large waves (tsunami) in areas like Dichato, Tomé, Pelluhue, Constitución, Bucalemu, Pichilemu, and many others. Since it was the last weekend of summer, the number of people at the beach as vacation-goers means that there are many people disappeared that were not residents.
NWR: I keep hearing reports of aftershocks. Have they been bad? Are they causing further damage or just giving a little bit of an additional scare?
LC: Aftershocks are completely normal after a quake of this magnitude. The government and sismologists have assured us this is normal. Immediately after the quake we would have them every 15-30 minutes in varying degrees. Sunday, we had a very strong one. Buildings that are in a state of ruins can be unsafe but generally speaking, they do not pose any harm–other than shaking nerves. Ironically, I have become extremely used to them now. I used to think that a tremor (the strength of an aftershock) was like a quake. Not even close. Words cannot describe the intensity and sensation of the quake. The force of mother nature was awesome and humbling. I never felt scared for my life though. I had a lot of faith in our building and that it would end. I mean, it has to end.
NWR: With the earthquake centering near Talca and the Maule Valley – where a good part of Chile’s wine industry is concentrated – was there any damage to any of the vineyards or hotels in the area? Are all still operating as normal and receiving visitors?
LC: Yes, a lot of damage in Colchagua, Curicó, and the Maule. Anything built out of adobe was destroyed. In some cases there was loss of bottles but no damage to the tanks nor winery, which is key since harvest is starting so soon. No loss of life in the wine business either. Apparently Clos Apalta’s luxury wine lodge had serious damage although the winery stayed in tact.
NWR: Should visitors cancel their trip to Chile because of the quake?
LC: Absolutely NOT. While the affected areas are not apt for tourism, Santiago, the coast, the north, Patagonia and Puerto Varas and absolutely fine. Now, more than ever, Chile needs income from tourism to help stimulate its economy. Imagine all the people this industry supports: hotels, transport, local restaurants, wineries, operators, and all the workers. We support dozens and dozens of people with our business. If we lose business, it is a domino effect. People want to work, want to serve, and honestly, the infrastructure in the non-affected areas is functioning. It is more like the Northridge quake in LA. Please see my blog post from yesterday. Also, one comparison that’s useful….the affected area in the south is equivalent to Houston-New Orleans when Katrina hit. Why wouldn’t you go to Houston or Dallas or Atlanta or New York? Well, that’s the Santiago situation along with the farther flung points. The media really need to emphasize that people understand the geography and where this is contained. Chile is developed and the country is functioning fine minus the really hard hit parts.
Caskey has been blogging about the quake at Eatwineblog.com. Proceeds from the sale of her eBook, Eat Wine Santiago, will go to supporting local businesses and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to local relief efforts with one of the non-profit organizations/farms we use for our business.
*Note: I just spoke with Alberto Becker at the Cliffs Preserve outside of Puerto Montt and things in the far south are operating as normal.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.