Page last updated at 07:55 GMT, Sunday, 28 February 2010

Shaken Santiago counts itself lucky

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

Quake damage in Santiago, Chile
Infrastructure damage has turned Santiago into an eerily quiet city

Although the quake struck at 3.30 in the morning, I was still awake, enjoying a party with friends in a beach house some 200km (125 miles) north-west of the capital, Santiago.

What struck me was not so much the intensity of the quake but its duration.

It started as an almost indiscernible trembling of the glasses and the furniture in the room, and it grew and grew for what seemed like an eternity.

The lights went out and we realised this was no minor tremor.

We ran out of the house, heading for open space.

Every car alarm in the street was sounding; the trees were quivering and I remember looking up and seeing the telephone lines swaying back and forth as if blown by a gale force wind.

It felt like we were at the epicentre, and it was only hours later that we found out that the real eye of the storm was around 500km further south, close to Chile's second city, Concepcion.

If we felt it this strongly here, what must it have felt like at the epicentre, I wondered.

Silent and dark

Later, I made it back from the coast to Santiago, through Chile's main port of Valparaiso.

There, piles of rubble littered the streets and people had largely deserted the lower reaches of the city, fearing a tsunami.

Quake damage in Curico, Chile, 27 Feb
Damage further south, here in Curico, has been far worse than the capital

In Santiago itself, whole areas of the city were still in darkness; tower blocks, usually ablaze with light after dusk, were spookily dark, with no electricity and no running water.

There were cars on the streets, but not many, and their owners were driving cautiously through a city suddenly deprived of its traffic lights.

I drove past my local church - largely intact, but missing its dome, which had crashed to the ground when the quake struck.

I reached my apartment building, silent and dark.

The door was hanging off its hinges, there were cracks in the walls, and flakes of plaster littered the floor. No light, no running water - a pattern repeated across this city of six million people.

But here in Santiago we can count ourselves lucky. Television images from the cities of Concepcion, Constitution, Talcahuano and Curico, close to epicentre, show just how devastating this quake has been.

Highways have been sliced in two and road bridges have collapsed.

It's still not clear how many people have died or what the extent of the damage is.

President Michelle Bachelet has spoken to the nation and confirmed that two million people - an eighth of the population - have been affected by the quake which, with a magnitude of 8.8, was one of the strongest recorded.

More than 300 have died and many more are missing.

Fortunately, the Chileans are good at dealing with earthquakes. They have to be: they have a long history of them.

Help has been reaching the stricken areas of the south and Santiago is just about functioning again.

But even so, it will be weeks, if not months, before the country returns to anything like normality, and for some areas, it will take much, much longer than that.

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