Playing earthquake while the ground rumbles and tempers flare

March 15, 2010

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The Educacion Popular en Salud (or EPES, Mercy Corps' local partner in Chile) Center here — with its wooden gazebo and jungle gym — is an oasis of respite from the surrounding catastrophe, two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Concepción, Hualpén, Talcahuano and neighboring communities we have worked with for nearly 30 years.

While nervous parents lined up to get water from the EPES well — accompanied by children too frightened to stay behind at home — the EPES staff produced crayons and paper from office supplies recovered from the disarray, and encouraged the children to draw.

“All the drawings and all the talk is about the earthquake,” reported Maria Stella Toro, a Santiago-based EPES educator who traveled to Concepción last week to support the local staff. “The level of trauma is high.”

In the street, children are taking turns tossing one another about in an old handcart in their newly-invented game of “Earthquake and Aftershocks.” The following scene was captured by on video by EPES staffer Hector Reyes. The translated dialogue follows below:

“How strong was that?” someone asks.

"That was a 9!” the young quake-shaker announces, as a little boy relinquishes his space in the hot seat to the next comer.

As the shaking gets more energetic (“That’s an 11!” an onlooker announces), the little girl’s bravado crumbles.

“That’s enough, Karina,” she pleads, “not so strong.”

Bravado, acting out and game-playing are all coping mechanisms that children adopt in the aftermath of traumatic experiences like Chile’s 8.8 quake, one of the strongest ever recorded in a country whose deceptively modern facade is crumbling along social fault lines exposed by the seismic cataclysm.

Mercy Corps, will be providing EPES with its Comfort for Kids methodology (used after 9/11 in New York City, along the U.S. Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and in the aftermath of earthquakes in Peru, China and Haiti) to help health workers, teachers, parents and other caregivers understand and address post-traumatic stress in children and adults.

Meanwhile, strong aftershocks continue to rock the area (tremors measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale jolted people awake early yesterday morning). Renewed tsunami alerts were decreed even as incoming President Sebastian Piñera was sworn into office last Thursday, while, outside the Congress building, panicked Valparaiso residents ran for the hills.

In Concepción, the start of the school year (scheduled for March 8) has been delayed due to collapsed buildings, disabled infrastructure, difficult transportation and the use of schools as temporary shelters. Reports indicate that one-third of the schools here are wholly or partially damaged.

Next door in Talcahuano, a port city destroyed by tidal flooding, 100 homeless people camp out in an emergency shelter at the Higueras Industrial High School. Dr. Lautaro López, director of EPES Concepción, has set up an improvised consulting “box” to dispense medical care, medicines and psychological support. Occupational therapist Liliana Estrada, an EPES volunteer from Santiago, organized a conversation “circle” (punctuated by several sessions of massage therapy) to address the topic of post-traumatic stress. But the sudden desperation and disorder provoked by the arrival of a batch of donated underwear reveals a underlying layer of need.

“The situation here is very difficult,” Lopez reports, “and the climate of convivencia (living together) and cooperation is complicated and tense.”

“The people here, and especially the women, need someone to listen to and understand their fears. But there is also a need to identify community leaders and coordinate with the city official who has just been assigned to oversee the shelter, in order to address emotional health needs and how to live together during this emergency.”

The EPES teams are returning today, after a visit to another temporary shelter located in the hills behind Hualpén.

Meanwhile, the second EPES relief team is returning to Santiago (where the short-staffed office is grateful for the support of former interns and friends volunteering during the emergency) and a third team has set off. The latest shift brings in two experienced health workers and an expert in disaster relief assessment — recently arrived from Haiti — courtesy of the Lutheran World Federation.

It has been two weeks since the earthquake and it feels like two months. We have so much work ahead.