West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Earthquake report

I am back in Costa Rica again, just in time for an earthquake. Yesterday afternoon a 6.2 quake hit in the mountains east of here. I was on the bus at the time, and with the usual combination of bad roads and bad suspension, I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Alex was in town for a visit, and we were chatting and laughing on the bus from San Pedro to Heredia. The only odd thing I noticed was a crowd of people gathered outside the supermarket in Tibas as we went past. I wondered whether it was a fire or a burglary. We had to stop by the market in San Pablo when we got off the bus, and we found a crowd of people there as well.

“¿Qué pasó?” I asked the security guard who was preventing people from entering the building.

“Un temblor. ¿No lo sintió?” An earthquake. You didn’t feel it?

At first I assumed that the damage had been minimal, but we turned on the news at home to see horrific helicopter footage of the road we had traveled on just the day before. The Vara Blanca route, one of the main passages between Sarapiquí and the Central Valley, is a twisting narrow track carved into the mountainside through the cloud forest, barely wide enough for two cars to pass (which doesn’t stop semi trailers from barreling over it at full speed). Was, I should say. The Vara Blanca road is now obliterated by a series of mudslides. Entire mountainsides have just peeled away; houses and factories have slid off into the valley. Many towns are isolated without water or power, and reports of missing people are still coming in. They have no idea how many people have died.

As we drove into town the day before, Alex and I had both been commenting on the bad state of the roadway and the precarious buildings perched over the abyss. We both thought that a lot of places looked like accidents waiting to happen. We had no idea how soon the accident would come.

Alex wanted to go back to her farm yesterday, but all the roads were closed. We sat and watched the news, horrified by the images of destruction, and she tried to reach Felix (her fiancée) in Sarapiquí. He finally got through, to say that he was OK and nothing in the house was damaged. She asked if there had been much damage in the region. He said, “sí, mi amor, es un desastre en Sarapiquí—” and then the phone line went dead.

We watched the news; footage from security cameras of buildings shaking and people running, people crying on each other’s shoulders, cracks appearing and widening in the pavement. Nothing about Sarapiquí. The phone network was down and we couldn’t reach anyone.

An hour later Felix finally got through again. The disaster had been an ecological one: mountains collapsing upstream had turned the Sarapiquí river to mud so thick that the fish jumped up the banks looking for water. Felix was worried about all the fish and shrimp and caimans in the river: how would they survive? After she hung up the phone, Alex said, “do you think there’s any other country where someone would worry so much about an ecological disaster?”

I am thankful that no one I know was hurt or lost. But there are many people out there without housing, without power, without water, even. I am donating what I can to the local Red Cross.

Vara Blanca will probably be closed for months. The Zurqui, the faster route through the mountains, was closed while engineers inspected the tunnel and the bridges, but it opened again this morning. Alex got home safely this afternoon, and I’ve been in the apartment by myself ever since, a bit spooked by the aftershocks that rattle the windows now and then.

My aunt Pegi lives in California, near the San Andreas fault. My mother once asked her whether she worried about earthquakes, but Pegi just looked at her as if she was crazy. “An earthquake is over in five seconds. You have six months of winter!” True, although winter is something you can at least predict and prepare for. Given the choice—earthquakes, winter—I’m still not sure which I’d pick. The next two years ought to give me more of an idea.


At 3:59 PM, Blogger susan said...

Canceled my trip to Selva Verde because of the earthquake. Does anyone know if it is safe to travel there in the next few weeks? The condition of the Sarapiqui river and the wildlife. Not sure if I should just wait a month or two. (1/12/09) Thanks!

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Travel is safe-- the tunnel on the Zurqui has been thoroughly inspected by engineers and found to be structurally sound. The Sarapiqui River has definitely suffered an ecological catastrophe, but tributaries are still very full of life and the fauna will return to the main channel in time. The forest is as amazing and full of life as ever. I would say go-- the Sarapiqui Region depends on tourist dollars, now more than ever.


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