Chile Update from New River Academy

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Dear Families and Friends,

For the past two days a top priority has been to contact the parents of the (New River Academy) students and my own family to send a simple message, “Your children and I are safe.” Yesterday, the students of the New River Academy were scheduled to catch a 9-hour ferry from Hornopiren just south of Puerto Montt to the Futaleafu gateway town of Chaiten. At 3:30 am the night of Feb. 27 the seventh largest earthquake recorded hit Chile.

First allow me to explain that the day prior I was traveling separately from the high school group and lost my cell phone on a night-bus from Pucon to Santiago. The night-bus would have passed through the epi-center zone exactly 24 hours prior to the event.

A Strange Awakening
I was staying on the Rio Maipo just an hour outside of Santiago with my Chilean friend and business consultant Sebastian “Tatan” Astorga. Tatan is helping with legal issues regarding building an impressive eco-camp for New River Academy on our Pucon, Chile riverside base. At approx. 3:30 am the bed and home began to shake, tremble, and seem to float. In a moment like this you know what you are experiencing, are disoriented, half-asleep, stumbling in the shaking dark. I walked through the home as it shook observing a feeling like one of those Niagara Falls 3-D max rides that always made me sea-sick. I soon found myself outside as I began to realize that maybe it was safer outside.

The moon was full and the earth trembling on and off. Immediately the sounds of boulders rolling down the canyon walls with the sight of hundreds of feet of dust captivated me. The Andean Maipo canyon walls are steep and climb for hundreds of feet. I looked as far down and up the canyon to hear and see the sounds and sights of the continual rocks in the moonlight. That night the earth in the Maipo canyon shook and tremored for hours. Tatan was at his girlfriends so I was alone during the “terramota” or earthquake. Because of a more horrific personal earthquake experience in Costa Rica the event simply was not too alarming for me. Around 4:30 am Joe and Soco, Tatan’s aunt and uncle, came by to check on me.

The morning of twenty-seventh I had little idea of the magnitude of the event. The electricity was out and I needed food. I walked over to the nearby eco-resort, Cascadas de las Animas, that Tatan’s family owns to discover an 8.8 earthquake had hit to the south near Concepcion (400 KM south). I asked how close the quake was to Hornopiren, where the high school (New River Academy) I direct was staying, and they assured me it was not close. I then asked how close to New River Academy’s Pucon base, “Around 400 KM away and Pucon received some damage.”

Realization of the Magnitude of the Catastrophe
The resort was vacant during near peak season on a Saturday. Soon I found myself hiking the mountainside to Tatan’s parents home. This home receives solar power, has a satellite TV, and their own water. It was at this home that 24 hour CNN and Chile news coverage illustrated the magnitude of Chile’s catastrophe.

The TV room was full of cousins and friends watching the news (as this was one of a few locations to watch TV due to their rare solar power/satellite combo), saddened, and debating the event. I would ask them to turn to CNN as I wanted to see what our US families were seeing. As the TV showed the terrible images I exclaimed, “I have to get to a phone or internet. The parents of my students are scared… I have to get to a phone.” I waited patiently for over an hour and eventually Sebastian agreed to take me to a phone.

Search for Phone or Internet
Tatan and I walked down the mountainside to the community where his relatives live. Since we had one of the only operational TV’s in a large region due to no one having electricity Tatan was a news source. I was anxious to find that phone and it was not easy for me to be patient through each conversation.

The Santiago area had received aftershocks and tremors but nothing close to the magnitude of the epicenter. Yet, as we drove 45 minutes away to Puente Alto I began to observe the problems. The observations began with cracked and crumbled cement walls, extended car lines at gas stations, and everything being closed. A large water truck was stopped at the bottom of a drive way as families filled their bottles. A closer examination illustrated every driveway had families waiting with coke and wine bottles to secure their water.

We drove from one destination to the next seeking an operational phone or Internet. The day was sunny and hot and as it wore on I grew tired and hungry. At 5:00 pm Tino Specht, New River Academy’s coach called Tatan’s cell (it was the first sign we observed of workable communication), “We just got off of the ferry. (The high school group had taken a 9-hour ferry that morning) How are you guys?” Me, “We are fine. Everyone is ok? “
Tino, “Yea, we did not feel anything. We just got here (Chaiten is a gulf port town to Patagonia’s Rio Futaleafu) and wanted to check on you.”
Me, “We don’t have electricity or phone. You are the first indication of the phone working. All the students are fine?, great news. Have fun on the Futa. Can you email the parents?”
Tino, “Chaiten does not have internet. Can you?”
Me, “Ok I am on calling and emailing the parents and am looking for communication now. Thanks for calling.”
Two more hours were spent before we tired and realized we were not going to find communication. Tatan and I returned to the family restaurant for candle lit dinner at the beautiful and vacant riverside resort.

We hiked the mountain to the solar powered home and dozed off watching a combo of Chilean earthquake reports and me pushing Tatan to turn the channel to CNN to observe what parents were observing. I now realized that a home with water, electricity, and satellite TV was as good as it could get for my situation.

I was still preoccupied about contacting the parents of my students and sending my own family just a one line note, “We are safe, unaffected, and all is well in Chile.”

That night I slept well from the previous nights terramoto night. In the morning I boiled water and began looking for Nescafe instant coffee at the home. I had no luck within the Tea drinking home. Tatan and I watched the morning news, which was now exhibiting looting. I thought, “People are without water, no electricity, and looting for food and survival has begun. I believe more will die due to lack of infrastructure of food and water. Our parents must be very worried as they watch these horrific reports.”
“C’mon Tatan I really need to call the parents. I saw on the news that a girl was using Internet in Santiago.” We trekked down the mountainside, past the family community, past the family pet mountain lion, across the swinging bridge, and up to the eco-resort. I boiled some water and made myself a cup of Nescafe while Tatan gathered his things. Tatan’s personal home still had neither electricity nor water like the rest of the regional society. We returned to the vacant resort and took a needed shower. We left the resort around 11:00 am. I had a day bag, laptop, water, a cup of coffee, and not eaten yet.

Our first stop was San Alfonso de Maipo. We stopped at two Internet and two phone places. While phones were working they could not call the US due to overloaded network. I bought 3 bananas and we left for Puente Alto. Long lines were at every gas station and supermarket. As we approached the mall I proclaimed, “There is a McDonalds and a mall where I have used wifi.” Both were closed.

Tatan’s girlfriend Pascua called her grandfather and asked if we could call the states from his house. He graciously complied, but after 30 minutes of attempts it was bleak. Tatan called a friend in Santiago who had Internet access and asked him to send an email to the New River Academy office on my behalf. He complied and I conversed via cell this message:
To: Melina Coogan (Public Relations Coordinator), Kara Ware (Academics Coordinator)
“I am writing on the behalf of David Hughes.
The school group is unaffected and fine at the Rio Futa. Your children are safe and sound. Expect they are enjoying the Rio Futa. I am near Santiago without communication and will report more ASAP. Please send report to families.
Please contact my parents at this number…”

Tatan’s phone rang minutes later at 2:37 pm with a second day call from Tino. Tino informed that the group was great at the Rio Futaleafu. They had made a heads-up call and drove to the township of Futaleafu and contacted every Canada and US family that morning. The river was beautiful and unaffected. Possibly, the school was in the best place in the country during this catastrophic event. The call meant relief and the two days end to the communication search had ended.

Updated March 1, 2010

This morning (March 1, 2010) I made the hike down the mountainside with the plan of catching a series of buses to downtown Santiago. I would get a hotel near Internet, contact families, buy a new cell phone, and send out reports. I was lucky and caught a ride with Tatan’s uncle Yerko. Yerko owns one of the world’s most prestigious trekking destinations, the Torres del Paine Eco-camp.

The ride was an hour and twenty minutes of Yerko advising regarding the eco-domes I have been researching for the Pucon base. Yerko dropped me in downtown Santiago, pointed me toward the subway, and I began my search for a hotel.

Now, here I am in a quaint downtown coffee shop, still dirty, eating eggs and a fruit drink, watching people go about their business, replying to a long list of worried emails. Next phone calls.

Thank you thank you thank you for your concerns.

***Readers please note while David Hughes struggled to send communication from Santiago an early text from student Katie Kowalski to her father Joe allowed all parents to be informed their children were safe and sound in Patagonia.

David Hughes