Cristina Vicentela was excited to fly from Chile to Saskatoon to visit the family she had stayed with as an exchange student in the prairies 28 years ago. The anticipation quickly turned to anxiety when she landed on Canadian soil to find out that not long after her plane hit the air, her home country was rocked by a giant earthquake.
“We were just about landing in Toronto, the captain spoke in Spanish and they told us the news about the earthquake,” Vicentela said after arriving in Saskatoon on Thursday.
“There were about 20 Chileans on the plane so we looked around to recognize who the Chileans were. Then once we landed and were in the line for immigration we started to talk … trying to get some calls back home to know where the people back there were.”
Wednesday evening the magnitude-8.3 quake rumbled for three minutes. More than one million people were forced to evacuate and least 10 people were killed in the country.
Once Vicentela was able to turn her phone on, she found messages from family that they were all OK and that they’d also sent an email to the family in Saskatoon she was going to visit.
Vicentela said her family lives about 200 kilometers from the city most impacted by the quake.
“They felt it very badly,” she said. “It’s like a bomb, something like a big noise from the centre of the earth coming. You can feel it in your feet before it comes to your home.”
The panic does not end with the shaking. Authorities also issued a tsunami warning for the Andean nation’s entire Pacific coast. Vicentela’s family was largely already out of the danger zone but she said the casino her husband works at was evacuated and people were sent into the hills for multiple hours, most returned by midday Thursday.
“People from my country have to be prepared for things like that to happen. We are getting used to learn to live with this,” she said. “We have to teach our children to have an emergency light. We have to teach them at the schools where are the safety areas because we live in an earthquake country.”
Wednesday’s quake had a much smaller impact than the more powerful 2010 tremor which killed more than 500 people and destroyed 220,000 homes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the 2010 quake was 5.6 times more powerful in terms of energy released and it actually shortened the Earth’s day by a fraction of a second by changing the planet’s rotation.
Vicentela said since that quake, the country has made a lot of changes and taken many precautions.
“We were expecting a big movement like this for the north part of the country, the experts have been talking about this for a couple of years,” she said, adding that on top of infrastructure changes, information has also been shared.
“We have to keep moving, life goes on but they have to be safe they have to know how to be safe and where they can go when these things happen. They don’t have to go into a panic because that’s the worst thing you can do.”
The strongest earthquake ever recorded on Earth happened in Chile — a magnitude-9.5 tremor in 1960 that killed more than 5,000 people. Just off the coast of the country the Nazca tectonic plate goes beneath the South American plate, pushing the towering Andes even higher.
– With files from The Canadian Press