By Felipe Trueba
Chile is a peculiar country. With an average width of 180 km and a lenght of 4300 km, the green and lush landscapes dominate the South, whereas the Atacama desert rules in the North – sand rocks and heat.
Two weeks ago it was just the opposite. The southern regions were suffering from drought with wildfires raging in some national parks. And then it started to rain in the North…
On Wednesday 25th March, I had just got back to the office after lunch when I saw my boss watching the breaking news on TV – the early reports were showing twitter pictures of cars stuck in water and rivers overflowing the streets in cities like Copiapo and Antofagasta. Intense raining in the upper part of the Andes and the impermeable soil of the desert caused huge masses of water to descend rapidly through wide ravines. “You’d better start packing…”, he said.
I scrambled up the gear, went home for some clothes and two hours later I was heading north in a little car with two fellow photographers and a videographer. The radio kept us informed of the scale of the unfolding disaster. Flash floods in areas where it hadn´t rained heavily for 20 years had swept whole villages away. As we were driving, Mario, my colleague in Santiago, was putting the first images on the wire, ringing friends and every possible contact in order to get some pictures.
Eight hours and 800 km on single lane roads later, just after midnight, we got to the city of Copiapo. Here the river had burst the banks and flooded downtown. When the car got stuck in mud, we took the cameras and laptops and left for a short trip around the nearby streets. The task took us longer than expected as we didn´t get back to the vehicle for two days.
For hours we waded through an empty city and rivers of mud, with cars and containers littered all around. We finally got to a school where neighbours were taking shelter. Somehow internet was working, so I sent the first images and a short video in underpants, as my trousers hung on a line to dry.
By dawn all four of us were back on the streets shooting. We managed to get a ride to a nearby village that had suffered the full force of the water. Whole houses had disappeared under tons of mud and people were helping each other in their search for relatives. Pictures were filed on the spot and we kept going.
We ran into two other photographers, joined forces and tried to get to Chañaral, a little village 200 km north of Copiapo. Located exactly where a ravine flows into the sea, its inhabitants have always been very aware of possible tsunamis after earthquakes, so frequent in this region. However, nobody realised the giant wave of water and debris coming from the mountains that hit them on Wednesday. Official warning came late and all the constructions on and near the once dry riverbed were obliterated. Footage recorded on mobile by neighbours shows mining trucks, iron tanks and whole houses being wiped out.
We got there by late afternoon. A third of the village had dissapeared. I moved hastily shooting pictures and video with the last rays of the day. With no power in town and under curfew we plugged the laptops into the car engine using a converter. Only one mobile internet connection was working, so we shared it and slowly -very slowly- the images were sent as soldiers on patrol walked past us from time to time. In the school converted into an improvised shelter we slept for a couple of hours, next to a group of volunteers preparing emergency food rations for those who had lost everything.
For the next two days we kept working in the same way: A group of photographers cramped in a car, editing in the back of the pick up while travelling from one village to another. We would work in the area for some hours and go out again in search for internet for our daily dispatch. During the first few days of chaos people helped each other at great length as the Government and the military had been caught on the hop. To this day, the official figures count 26 dead and 126 people missing.
I have always admired the stoicism Chileans show in moments of great adversity. But the woman I encountered trying to remove –literally- tons of mud from her home with a little shovel took me by surprise. She invited me to go inside and have a look around. “But, please… wipe your feet first!”, she grinned. At least, the water hadn´t taken everything from her.