Article by Carolina Robino published online at BBC Mundo. Read the original in Spanish here
One of the things that has most interested British journalists that are covering the earthquake which devastated the north of Chile on Tuesday is why people don’t run in terror while objects fall around them.
Other colleagues from the BBC, who come from countries not prone to earthquakes, have thought the same.
I, as a Chilean, try to give them an answer.
MATTER OF TIME
The first thing I tell them is that we are used to it.
Through history, Chile has been hit by numerous earthquakes.
In fact, the biggest earthquake on record (magnitude 9.6 on the Richter Scale) occurred in the southern city of Valdivia in 1960.
This means that since childhood we get used to the idea that earthquakes will be a constant in our lives. It’s inevitable. Sooner or later, the earth will move under our feet.
From the time we are children we regularly participate in organised drills at school and we learn that the safest and most efficient way to react is to maintain composure and evacuate in an orderly manner.
We also know that most buildings comply with strict anti-earthquake building standards which make it more difficult for them to collapse.
It’s not that we don’t get scared – there are people who panic and who do run away in terror. Even worse, some die of heart attacks, as happened on Tuesday.
But most of us learn to put them in perspective. And to wait.
For example: if an earthquake happens at night and you’re in bed, you take a moment to weigh up whether it’s worth getting up. In fact, most of the time it’s not necessary.
Earthquakes don’t always start with large tremors. The intensity can increase gradually, from movement that is almost imperceptible to that in which it’s impossible to stay on your feet.
If it’s no bigger than a tremor, I can even enjoy it. there is a certain excitement to feel and above all to hear how the earth releases energy.
THE SOUND OF THE CHURCH
When an earthquake occurs the reaction might not be immediate.
During the 1985 earthquake in the central zone of Chile, I was at a bus stop in Santiago with some school friends. When the earthquake started we though that someone was shaking the bus stop to annoy us.
Gradually we started to realise that the church tower in front of us was swaying from side to side and the bell didn’t stop ringing. The street and cars moved, drawing waves of tar.
Another thing that not many people know is that earthquakes have different forms. Sometimes they are undulating, other times the movement is predominantly either vertical or horizontal.
When an earthquake catches you in the street, the most sensible thing to do is to look for a place where there are the least amount of poles, cables, or constructions that could fall onto you.
But we didn’t move. We didn’t run, but it was because of panic.. We remained seated, somewhat paralysed, a little bit hypnotised. When it was over, we simply walked home.
That earthquake left 175 people dead.
A STRICKEN COUNTRY
For the 2010 earthquake I was in London. It measured 8.8 and more than 500 people died, most of them in the tsunami that followed. They were sad days for the country.
When I went to Chile shortly after it shocked me how much it had affected the psyche of the people. They spoke of nothing else. Everybody talked of where they were when it happened and how they had survived.
I heard sad stories from people I knew who had lost a loved one, other very scary ones from friends who though it was the Apocalypse, from children who looked at their parents without understanding what was happening, from relatives who lost their homes. My mother was convinced that her building was going to collapse.
But I was also told extremely funny anecdotes. My favourite is one from a couple who had stood up just when the earthquake began. She ran to her kids’ room. He threw himself towards the television. His logic, he told me, was that if his wife was already busy with the children, he might as well try to save something else.
That earthquake, the most heavily covered by the media in the country’s history, raised awareness about the importance of following the instructions of the authorities, knowing evacuation routes and making sure that you have a working torch at hand.
It also put an end to several myths.
If we previously thought that the best way of protecting yourself in your home was to stand in the doorframe, we now know that it is better to kneel down beside the bed on the side where less objects can fall. And that’s what we do.
We don’t run just because we are accustomed to earthquakes but also because we think we know what to do or because sometimes the movement is so strong that we can scarcely walk and running is literally impossible.
But also because something very primitive, even atavistic is produced by the earth when an earthquake begins and we know that there is nowhere to escape to because the ground on which we would run is also moving.