I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet
I now know that I do not like earthquakes. We had a pretty big one here in Cuenca on Saturday; actually the epicenter was maybe a hundred miles west of here, near the coast, but it's 6.8 rumble was acutely felt right here. I had been advised ("warned" would be too strong a word) that the occasional temblor would be felt in Cuenca, but nothing to worry about; they are generally brief and harmless. So there I was, quietly eating my lunch (a leftover slice of vegetarian pizza from the day before) and a bowl of fruit and yoghurt. Just minding my own business. At first, the rumble was indeed light, nothing to worry about, indeed. It lasted a few moments, receded, then rumbled again. Still nothing to worry about so I kept on nibbling on that day-old pizza. THEN it hit, a building-twisting rock and roller that would have made Jerry Lee Lewis proud. The sound of my seven-story apartment building creaking and cracking, plaster falling from my ceiling and my walls separating at their joints, the sound of something big falling just outside my door. Shouts from outside on the street. This is no harmless tumbler: "Okay, you got my attention now. I better get my ass out of here." I was barefoot so looked for my sandals and found them in the next room; I slipped them on and headed for the door. As I opened it, a large square piece of ceiling lay in front of me. I tried to kick it out of the way, then headed down the stairs. By then, the rocking had subsided but I kept going anyway.
I joined the crowd on the street, a collection of barbers, beauticians and ladies with their hair wrapped in foil, plus a few families with kids, and a few of us oldsters. Everyone was looking up at the front of our building. Some bricks had fallen to the ground smashing into shards; other than that, things looked pretty stable. Then out came the cellular phones and information came streaming in. It was a 6.8 on the Richter scale. It's epicenter was about 100 miles to our west, near the coast. Lots of damage in Guayaquil and El Oro area. Cuenca seemed good in spite of the shake we got. One mom holding a baby was still crying. An old guy in a red sweater came out of the building with his hand over his heart, shaking with terror. The barber shop folks eventually began to move back into their shop on our ground floor. I waited longer to make sure there were no imminent aftershocks. More news coming in on telephone screens: one dead here in Cuenca...the façade of an old home in the historic center of the city fell on a car, killing one person; several more fatalities in El Oro near the epicenter.
With no aftershock so far, I, too, returned up to my second floor apartment and began assessing the situation within. Cracks in the plaster walls everywhere. Cracks in the ceiling, too. The crown molding throughout the place was ruptured. White dust and chunks of stucco across the floor. The windows were all intact and, strangely, nothing had fallen from the bookshelves or cabinets. "Oh boy; this is going to be a mess to clean up."
Next thing: text my family back home to let them know I'm safe and sound...before they hear about it on the news. Same with Facebook. Then a few texts to and from folks here in Cuenca. "You okay?" "Yup. And you?" "Yes, we're fine."
My wonderful landlady texted me to make sure I was okay. I wrote back that I was a bit shaken, but fine. Sadly, I informed her, the apartment (just newly painted throughout before I took possession ten days prior) took a pretty good hit. I sent her some photos, then decided to just leave things as they were, collect my valuables, and get out of there for the rest of the day, at least. I hoofed it across town to a parishioner's place and camped out in her living room for the afternoon, then upstairs to another parishioner's apartment for dinner.
There seemed to be no significant aftershocks through the afternoon and evening, so I returned about 9:00 pm and swept up the bathroom, bedroom and some of the living room. Then I prepared a "go bag", stuffing my small backpack with one set of clothes and my important documents and credit cards, in case there was more trouble through the night; I had my pants and shoes at the ready if needed. Getting to sleep took a while, but finally I dozed off, waking early to a new day and the sun rising over the city. Sunday, the first day of the week, the fourth of the Lenten season; get breakfast, shower, run through my homily one final time, welcome my cleaning guy in and get him started, walk out the door and down to the street, and hoof it up to church for 10:00 am Mass.
It was particularly good to see and greet folks as they arrived at church. Small talk focused mostly on "where were you when it happened". Then into church for praise and thanksgiving and the Word and sad prayers for those who had died or were injured and their families. After Mass and coffee, I walked home with a neighbor and came back to a clean apartment and a roasted chicken lunch in a fast-food place down the street with my cleaning guy.
Settling in for the afternoon in my newly cleaned up digs, this was my thought: "Well, it is very good to be alive. It is very good all my friends and parishioners are alive. It is very good that we have a lovely day to enjoy the sound of the birds outside, the hum of nearby traffic, of things getting back to normal, and most of all, that it was no worse." I headed to bed for the second night with my "go bag" at the ready, just in case.
Monday morning came in like a lamb and by 9:00 am, the building was buzzing with insurance people, landlords, building administrators and neighbors all checking out the damage, peeking in through open doors to assess the cracks, and asking important questions like, "Is that big crack there just superficial or something more serious?).
So there it is: my first "big one" and I hope the last. I felt the earth move under my feet, as the old Carole King song goes. But already we are all pretty much back to normal. Life goes on for most of us. For some fifteen or sixteen others, not at all. There's just enduring sadness about that. Que descansen en paz.