Last week, during my first week of Spanish classes at Sevilla, I was taught the verb temblar, which means to shake or to tremble. I also learned its counterpart noun, temblor, a word Guatemalans use to describe the tremors felt during minor earthquakes.
Surprised that I would be taught this word during my first week of class, I asked my teacher how frequent los temblores occur. After all, if there’s a commonly understood name for them, I thought, perhaps I’d be lucky enough to experience un temblor.
Today was my lucky day. We had un temblor here in Antigua, and it was mighty surreal.
It happened just after lunch. I was in the kitchen of my house, joking around with Jason, a housemate of mine, and Anna, one of our cooks. We were wrapping a bunch of avocados — the ones Jason and I had collected yesterday in the courtyard of the school (see previous post) — in newspaper, which we were told is a quick way to make them ripen.
So there we were, joking around in the kitchen with a bunch of king-size avocados wrapped in newspaper, when Anna — a native Guatemalan — froze for a second, smiled slyly, and asked if we could feel the ground moving.
I didn’t feel it at first; not until she said something did I realize that indeed I felt slightly dizzy. It was a feeling of disorientation, like when you first step off a roller coaster. Excitedly, we left the kitchen and walked out into the courtyard of the house, where the plants were visibly swaying back and forth.
And just like that, it was over. It only lasted maybe 20 or 30 seconds. In fact, it happened so quickly, there was no time to panic.
A few minutes later, another housemate, Marion, came downstairs from his bedroom and asked if we’d felt the Earth move.
(Tremendously excited about what had happened, we celebrated the occasion with a Cuban cigar — a special treat here for Americans like myself, as I’d never smoked one before.)
Guatemala has a deadly legacy of earthquakes. In a previous post, I wrote about how the Spanish colonialists abandoned Antigua as their capital city in favor of Guatemala City after a series of 18th century earthquakes here.
Worst of all was the earthquake of 1976, which lasted for 39 seconds, measured 7.5 on the Richter scale, and could be felt as far away as Mexico City. The earthquake of 1976 struck the night of February 4 at three in the morning, when most people were asleep in bed. Two days later, on February 6, a massive aftershock measured just under 6.0 on the Richter scale. There were reportedly over 1,500 aftershocks in the couple months that followed.
Though the epicenter of the earthquake was well outside the city limits of Guatemala City, it nonetheless wrought havoc the capitol, whose population at the time topped one million people, not to mention the villages located near the fault line, many of which were almost entirely destroyed.
Around 25,000 people died in the earthquake of 1976, and around 75,000 were injured (for most were asleep when the earthquake struck, meaning they were in bed as the roof of their home, generally made of adobe brick, collapsed upon them, crushing if not killing them).
Furthermore, over a million people — around 20% of the total population of Guatemala — were left homeless. To make matters worse, landslides blocked roads, water lines were ruptured, and even the country’s sole commercial airport had to be closed because of structural damage.
Many of those left homeless fled to Guatemala City, which I’ve been told is a disorganized mess of urban planning these days in part because of the massive influx of rural Guatemalans left homeless by the earthquake of 1976.
If, like me, you find these earthquake photos fascinating, there’s a huge gallery of them at the website of the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library.
There’s another gallery — this one comprised of about 250 photos from Antigua following the earthquake of 1976 — posted online that is credited to Barbara V.C. DuFlon. For example, this photo from that gallery was taken around the corner from my house. From the past couple posts here, you should recognize Volcán de Agua in the background:
Similarly fascinating is a disaster relief case report written by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in 1978. It’s also online.