By Andres T. Tapia

New America Media

Aug 16, 2007

CHICAGO – “There’s been an earthquake…in Lima…7.5 on the Richter scale.” It’s my sister Lis on the answering machine. In a flash, our end of the day relaxation around the dinner table gets pulled out from under us as if one of those pull-the-tablecloth-from-under-the-set-table guys had materialized in our dining den.

Here in Chicago, the plates and glasses remain on the table, but our insides are shaken, while back home family and friends are picking up broken objects that have fallen off walls, counters, tables, shelves, roofs, vanities and ceilings.

Our daughter runs immediately to her cell phone to call newfound friends from her recent stay in Lima. In contrast, I concentrate on finishing a conversation with my wife while I let the news start working its way through my system. In earthquakes, things are so out of control that I need a few minutes to bring an item to resolution. It’s a fig leaf of something I feel I can control before I immerse myself in what I know will be a long night of conflicting news reports on TV and the Internet, marathon redialing on the phone to get through, a seesaw of emotions from fearing the worst to rationalizations that I’m sure everyone’s okay.

More news. “I got through to Dad…He’s okay,” says Lis. The Accounted For checklist begins. “A tsunami warning for the coast of Peru has been issued,” flashes CNN en Español. The anxiety rises. “The entire cell phone network is down in Lima,” announces. The frustration sets in. We can’t get a hold of those who were not home when the earth shook.

Marisela is texting her school friends from Lima. They are all okay. Relief. But Ericks, her boyfriend, is not online. Tears well up. “I keep calling and I can’t get through,” she says quietly.

A couple of hours go by. The news trickles in. There are aftershocks both on the ground and in our emotions. No deaths in Lima. Relief. La Punta, which is at sea level, is about to be evacuated. Fear. The tsunami warning gets called off. Relief. No one answers at Aunt Violeta’s or Aunt Blanca’s. The self-reassurance begins. “Ok, we haven’t heard from everyone but they are all in Lima and Lima has reported no casualties. They’re all okay, they’re all okay, they’re all okay…” Yet, the night is in suspended animation, our routine cannot resume until we hear from everyone directly.

“Alo…” It’s Ericks’ voice. The signal cuts off. A handful of tries later, Marisela gets through. He’s okay, the Cuban salsa dance place he works at, and they danced in, intact. “But there’s no one here.” Not a night for Limeños to feel like dancing. There has been enough shaking as it is.

Emotions begin to settle down. Then the first deaths are reported. It’s in the city of Ica, three miles south of Lima. First 7, then 13, then 22. News from Pisco, my dad’s hometown. The mayor is heard on the airwaves, “The city has been 70% destroyed. There are bodies littering the streets. Please, we need help, send right away.” By morning the death count in Pisco, Ica, and Chincha, where my youngest sister, Nora, married a couple of years ago, is 350. As I write, it’s still climbing.

The phone calls and e-mails from friends and family in the U.S. start coming in. “Is your family okay?” “How are you doing?” Aunt Blanca’s choked sobs over the international phone lines as she told me of Pisco’s destruction, where my grandparents had been teachers, still echo in my ears. Just a few weeks ago I had just come back from taking 10 people to Peru for a visit. On TV, the Plaza Mayor – where we had taken group pictures at the Palacio de Gobierno’s (Government Palace’s) changing of the guard – is shaking on the continuously running cell phone recorded clip.

Memories channel me back to the earthquake of 1970, where three towns in the Andes were destroyed, and two additional towns were completely buried in a snow and mud avalanche. Only the top of the palm trees of the central plaza gave any evidence that Yungay, one of the buried towns, ever existed. I have a picture of me as a boy and my dad in that square just a few weeks before the seismic spasm when I accompanied him to a medical congress. That time, more than 60,000 people died. In Lima, we rushed out of homes, schools, and offices and saw glass windows undulating in and out, many shattering. On the street, we saw cars bouncing up and down like basketballs, the street moved like ocean swells. The streetlights swayed wildly from side to side.

When the earth shakes there is no place to hide. It’s apocalyptic. It’s all encompassing. The world’s firm ground, the most solid element around us, is rippling, groaning, opening up. Rather than holding us up firmly, it’s ebbing.

Power goes out. Clocks stop, marking the moment of the quake. Fear seizes our stomachs and throats. We look to the sky to see what is falling as we look to the ground to see what is opening up. The seconds seem forever. Last night’s two minutes was an eternity. The wait to hear from loved ones too terribly long.

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NAM contributor Andrés Tapia grew up in Lima, Peru. He writes about cultural, political, and economic trends in the Americas.


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