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When the Earth Shakes Back Home

New America Media, Commentary, Andres T. Tapia Posted: Aug 16, 2007

Editor's Note: The earthquake that devastated Lima, Peru, was felt in the hearts of Peruvians living in America who fear for family, friends and familiar places. NAM contributor Andrs Tapia grew up in Lima, Peru. He writes about cultural, political, and economic trends in the Americas.

CHICAGO -- Theres been an earthquakein Lima7.5 on the Richter scale. Its 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. Its 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 Im sure everyones okay.

More news. I got through to DadHes okay, says Lis. The Accounted For checklist begins. A tsunami warning for the coast of Peru has been issued, flashes CNN en Espaol. The anxiety rises. The entire cell phone network is down in Lima, elcomercio.com.pe announces. The frustration sets in. We cant 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 cant 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 Violetas or Aunt Blancas. The self-reassurance begins. Ok, we havent heard from everyone but they are all in Lima and Lima has reported no casualties. Theyre all okay, theyre all okay, theyre all okay Yet, the night is in suspended animation, our routine cannot resume until we hear from everyone directly.

Alo Its Ericks voice. The signal cuts off. A handful of tries later, Marisela gets through. Hes okay, the Cuban salsa dance place he works at, and they danced in, intact. But theres no one here. Not a night for Limeos to feel like dancing. There has been enough shaking as it is.

Emotions begin to settle down. Then the first deaths are reported. Its in the city of Ica, three miles south of Lima. First 7, then 13, then 22. News from Pisco, my dads 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, its 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 Blancas choked sobs over the international phone lines as she told me of Piscos 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 Gobiernos (Government Palaces) 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. Its apocalyptic. Its all encompassing. The worlds firm ground, the most solid element around us, is rippling, groaning, opening up. Rather than holding us up firmly, its 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 nights two minutes was an eternity. The wait to hear from loved ones too terribly long.

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