Student survives natural disaster in foreign country

By Caroline Young |
Photos contributed by Liz Lang

Flagler College senior Liz Lang was wrapping up her first Saturday night on the town in Chile when an earthquake struck at 3:34 a.m. on February 27.

“Two of my friends were outside skateboarding,” Lang said. “That was the scariest thing…we didn’t know where they were.”

Liz, a political science and Spanish major, was beginning the spring semester of her junior year studying abroad in Viña del Mar, Chile when an earthquake of an 8.8-magnitude hit.

Lang and a friend hurried to find a doorway to stand under before the power went out in their hotel.

“Everyone went outside because you are supposed to go outside in case there’s an aftershock,” she said.

Stronger than the 7.0-magnitude quake that ransacked Haiti a couple month earlier, the Chilean earthquake tied for the world’s fifth largest since 1900, according to The New York Times. But thanks to Chile’s strict building codes, the damages were not of the same caliber as those in Haiti.

About 215 people died the day of the quake and that number climbed in the following week to an estimated 700.

Lang was far from the southern epicenter, about 200 miles southwest of Santiago de Chile, but she said it was unlike anything she had felt before.

It was her third day in a foreign country and she had already experienced a high-impact natural disaster.

Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president, is quoted in The Times, saying the quake was “one of the worst tragedies in the last 50 years” and declared a “state of catastrophe” the night afterward.

Lang moved in with her host family immediately after the quake. The language barrier made it tough for her to understand what everyone around her was saying.

Her Spanish was rusty when she first arrived but she knew enough to communicate with her host family and understand what was going on.

“If I hadn’t known any Spanish, it would have been awful,” Lang said.

Lang’s host family was worried about their relatives from the south who lived closer to the epicenter, yet they had a much calmer reaction to the earthquake than her fellow students’ families.

“They said their host moms were just sitting and crying the whole time,” she said. “They couldn’t get in touch with their children.”

Lang’s host family lost water in the house for the first week of her stay in Chile and it was cut two weeks later for a few more days.

“If we had to go to the bathroom, we had to fill up the toilet,” she said. “But other people didn’t have power or water, so we were in a good situation.”

Lang remembers broken windows and lampposts lying in the streets of Viña del Mar. There was structural damage to several of the large buildings, rummage filled the roads and businesses shut down for a while.

“Right after the earthquake, on the street that I lived on,” she said, “there would be babies crawling around and people living in tents.”

The Times reported that the first aftershock happened on Sunday around 8:30 a.m., followed by more than 20 significant other ones.

Lang said most people were frightened of a post-earthquake tsunami occurring the week after the quake with false alarms all over the news.

“Because of the language barrier,” Lang said, “I was so confused so I didn’t know-was it a false alarm? Was it not?”

Since Viña del Mar is a beach town, Lang says everyone in the city tried to get as far away from the ocean as possible during the tsunami scares.

“Nobody was really talking to anybody,” she said. “Everybody was just watching the news, so I had to Google it.”

Lang’s host family’s house did not have any terrible damages, but one of her fellow students had to change host families.

“Their house was condemned, so she had nowhere to live really,” Lang said about her friend. “The Chilean government said it was not livable… it was totally damaged.”

While she was initially planning to spend her weekends touring national monuments and museums, the earthquake caused a change in Lang’s plans. Most of the places she was scheduled to visit were shut down, including Chilean politician and writer Pablo Neruda’s home and Casablanca, a Spanish commune.

“They were not ruined, but things were broken and misplaced,” she said. “They had to take time to get them back to their state.”

Instead, Lang and the other students joined forces with the Chilean university students to help clean up the mess. She said any house that was Adobe-style was completely ruined.

When Lang’s departure date came in early July, she says the living situations in many cities, such as Santiago de Chile, were still shocking.

“People were legitimately living in villages of tents,” she said. “And it’s Chilean winter, so it’s cold.”

This was Lang’s first experience with a natural disaster and her first time living in another country alone. Yet she said she still has no fear in returning one day to Chile or living in another faraway place.

In fact, she said, she would definitely do it again.

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