Chile Earthquake Disaster Response Trip

“O Wow! This is unreal!!!” – me, the entire time I was there…

Regions surrounding Concepcion Chile were hit hard by the 8.8 quake (2nd largest in recorded history) at 3:00am on February 27th 2010. Minutes after the quake, tsunamis reaching as high as 30 meters soon followed despite the good-will assurances of police officers in beach town calling for people to remain in their homes. Portions of entire towns were catastrophically swept away leaving only the concrete slabs of houses behind. Thousands of structures across Chile were damaged or collapsed. Overall 500 people were killed with many more, including pastors, still missing.

The day after the quake, my plans with Engineering Ministries International to go to Haiti were now redirected to Chile. Surprisingly, it was the broken but resilient people of Chile that showed me once again how God can work through our cracks and damages to reveal his purposes.

Structural Engineering

I traveled with EMI’s disaster response team to provide water filters and structural assessment assistance to those in need. Our main mission was to determine whether or not buildings and houses could be reoccupied by evaluating their post-‘terramotto’ (earthquake) structural integrity. During the 10 days we were there, we provided 51 structural assessments of churches, schools, jails, hospitals, and historic buildings. We found many to be re-inhabitable after a structural retrofit, some to be immediately inhabitable without retrofit, and few needing to be completely demolished. We worked with pastors, government officials from the Chilean ministry of infrastructure, and local contractors.

As a structural engineer, I was fascinated by the quake and the damage. There is really nothing like being there and seeing the damage. The pictures just do not do a disaster zone justice. The trip provided me with a remarkable opportunity to see just how the earthquake forces rip through a structure that does not have the proper structural engineering and appropriate construction. In California, designing buildings to resist these seismic forces is complicated and advanced. In Chile, the codes and technology is similar to California but often construction begins and ends without the structural engineering or permitting that their code requires. Some have said, that although corruption may be slim in Chile compared to the rest of the world, there is a bit of a smell of construction inspection bribery when evaluating some of these buildings. To be honest, I think that may be the case in some rare instances there. But, most instances the lack of required structural engineering or poor construction practices is due to the fact that the nation is still developing and does not have it all together just yet in terms of accountability, planning department organization, and a system wide ‘old way of doing things’ mentality.

Overall, for all the buildings, the structural failures we observed were due to the following:

– No structural engineering
– Using unreinforced masonry as a shear wall
– Inadequate stirrup reinforcing around column bases
– No vibration of the concrete during placement
– Using smooth rebar instead of deformed rebar
– Using smooth river rocks instead of crushed granite rock
– Poor water to cement ratio in concrete mix
– Poor mixing of concrete prior to placement
– Inadequate foundations
– Inadequate bearing soil or sub surface soil type
– Soil settlement due to lack of compaction or a high water table
– Inadequate roof truss/rafter to wall connection
– Inadequate diaphragm to shear wall connection
– Etc.

While the Chilean seismic code and research is advanced, the lack of oversight and accountability in stopping a building from being built, even a church, was detrimental. Unfortunately, a lot of the churches we visited did not have adequate, if any, structural engineering or had failures due to the inadequate construction practices mentioned above. Despite being structures that house God’s people once a week, God seemed to show no favor in keeping poorly engineered and constructed church buildings free from damage.

Personal Observations

Although much damage was done to the structures, there was much resolve in terms of the patriotism of the Chilean people. We saw hundreds of Chilean flags attached to people’s cars and homes- most often seen draped from window sills in damaged homes or mounted on sticks anchored in rubble. The rally cry here is “Fuerza, Chile!” & “Be strong, Chile!”

Seeing the diverse economy of an emerging 2nd world nation equally fascinated me. Some highlights of this polar diversity include:

– On many occasions we could spot a horse pulling a man on a cart across a freeway bridge with a large supermarket in the background.
– In Talcuhuano, a town hit hard by the Tsunami, the smell of dead sea life, moved buildings, houses upside down in the streets, and the lack of water left people abandoned, while the next city had little damages and carried on as if the earthquake never came, life as normal.
– One building may have suffered much damage, while the building next door remained virtually unscathed.
– Some towns are still out of water, some towns are watering there parks all day and night.
– Some areas had an abundance of food, some had no food or no transportation to food.
– In downtown Concepcion (largest city in the region), a new mall which matches our fanciest and most exotic mall in the USA was packed with people like it was Christmas, while down the street at the church funeral people mourned the loss of their loved ones.

As we entered certain cities, we were met by a massive cross without Jesus on it. For a historically Catholic country, this was surprising.

After finishing our work we had a few hours left to be tourists in Santiago. Santiago is hard to describe but if one thinks of a European version of New York and Los Angeles combined, that may help. We only were able to travel to the top of a big hill that overlooks the city. At the top of the hill is a beautifully carved statue of Mary. The statue must be 10m high and is daunting! Almost hidden in the garden below there is a small poorly carved statue of Jesus dying on the cross with 2 statues of disciples nearby. The paint on Jesus and his onlookers was wearing. Some portions of Jesus and his friends had bird droppings on them. Although, I noticed this sort of idolatry in Italy, it remains a disheartening thought: the woman who gave birth to Jesus is elevated to majestic levels, while Jesus is a forgotten garden gnome.

Some stories that touched my heart

We brought our tent because we heard the aftershocks were still occurring, but we wound up not using it as we found a great structure to sleep in. We stayed on the 3rd floor of a concrete shear wall church office building that we assessed as ‘green’ (clear to reoccupy without retrofit) earlier in the day. The pastor of the church, who just prior to the terramotto suffered a brain-shattering life-altering stroke slept on the 1st floor (his actual home collapsed all around him during the terramotto). Although the pastors, condition on the 1st floor was extremely sad, this building was quite interesting to experience. It rocked and rolled in every aftershock. Surprisingly, we felt 2 aftershocks each night, with the 2nd stronger than the 1st each time…Strange…The pastor’s wife helped us get in and out of the building each morning and night as much as she could while she helped her bed-ridden husband in their new 1st floor classroom home…That blessed our hearts tremendously. We spoke of his condition to every pastor that we met across Chile and they all somehow knew about it.

We went back to 1 church on 3 different days to perform the assessment. Each time we couldn’t get in. On the 3rd attempt we got word that the pastor has been missing since the terramotto. But the church continued to meet outside of the main building even without their pastor.

Upon arriving in Constitucion, a port city severely damaged. My trip leader wrote this, “Walking around the shoreline was a surreal experience. Totally bare plots of land had makeshift posts sticking up, labeling property that used to have houses, yards, roads, automobiles, and people. Now it was dirt. There is a low island right offshore. 200 people were said to have camped there the night of the earthquake. It was the last weekend of the summer, and tourists had come from out of town to spend some time on the ocean and watch the fireworks. In the morgue the night after, there were 35 bodies that no one could identify because they were visitors from out of town. Many are still on the missing persons list.” Some of the people on the island that survived said that they were somehow able to climb up the trees to hang on during the attack of the waves in the pitch darkness.

The pastor of the church in Constitucion, Edison Lagos, took us in for the night after giving us a tour of the tsunami zone. He put us up in his 5 year old daughter bedroom next to her dolls while he and the family slept on the floor downstairs. His neighborhood was high enough over Constitucion that the tsunami didn’t affect them. Over dinner he shared with us some thoughts after 2 weeks of ministering to his local hurting community.

“I praise God that He continues to take care of us. It’s been God who’s given us the strength to raise our arms. Without Him, we wouldn’t have the strength… The Gospel isn’t easy. Two things the Lord says: that we are crucified with Him and that we will live forever… God says, ‘I am coming, but I’m coming to a Church that is spotless–free of pride. If I do this, it’s because I want people to know that I am coming soon.’ … I [have labored hard] to preach the true Gospel–not just a light gospel, a gospel about being happy and content.” – Pastor Edison Lagos in Constitucion, 15 March, 2009

Two weeks after that terrible night, like all the other pastors we visited, Edison is busy counseling, giving food, and providing clothes to their church members who lost their loved ones, there houses, and are living in temporary camps.

We heard story after story of people’s reactions during and after the quake. There are too many to share here. However, it is clear that God’s purposes remain powerful in Chile and God’s power remains purposeful there.

Overall, the trip was a powerful experience. I felt the power of the earth like I have never felt in California, saw the damage done to many buildings (especially churches) by the power of the earthquake, but experienced the power of God moving in and through the church – His people rather than His buildings.

Unto the King,
Jeremy David Livermore, P.E.

Ps. I don’t speak Spanish, but here is a small article published in a local newspaper called Yungayino:
“Yungay, una visita de profesionales norteamericanos se realizó el pasado 18 de marzo a nuestra comuna, quienes están recorriendo varios lugares de la zona acompañados por personal del Seremi de Vivienda de Concepción, para evaluar en terreno los daños ocasionados por el terremoto que afecto a nuestro País el pasado 27 de febrero. La vista se concentro en la Escuela Fernando Baquedano cuya instalación sufrió severos daños, para continuar en la Parroquia de San Miguel, finalmente se inspecciono la cárcel donde se pudo apreciar varias murallas con daños. Esta visita estuvo acompañado por el Jefe de Obras de la Municipalidad Jack Marchant, quién manifestó al Portal sobre la inspección y recomendaciones que realizaron los especialistas norteamericanos quienes emitirán un informe, el cuál será fundamental para las decisiones que se tomaran con respecto al futuro de las instalaciones visitadas.


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