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Chile after the Quake: “I thought I heard hell opening”

Goethe-InstitutCopyright: Goethe-Institut
The Museo Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) in the neighbourhood of the Goethe-Institut: Many cultural institutions were badly damaged (Photo: Goethe-Institut)

10 April 2010

Reinhard Maiworm had long become used to the ground trembling. But, on 27 February it did more than tremble. That day, the earthquake killed hundreds of people in Chile and thousands lost their homes. The Goethe-Institut was also hit. The institute director reports on the catastrophe in an interview.

How are you?

Maiworm: Actually, I’m fine. Still, when something like this happens, you still don’t feel safe again after five weeks. But you learn to deal with it. I’ve been familiar with the minor tremors since I got here. You take them in stride because you know that the tremors are actually a good thing. Because when it trembles, the tectonic plates lose some of their tension. The people here call these smaller quakes temblor. It’s not a proper earthquake until it reaches magnitude 6.

This time it was magnitude 8.8 and therefore was officially the fifth strongest earthquake ever measured.

At first I thought it was just another temblor. But it still didn’t stop after 15 seconds and kept getting stronger. At some point the tremors were over and then suddenly everything began to rumble. I had the feeling I heard hell opening. It’s an indescribable, deep, archaic sound. Dishes fell down in the kitchen; books fell off the shelves, a large shelf tipped over. The bed was moving as if I were riding a steer at a rodeo. I got up and went outside, not panicking at all. I did everything automatically. I ran in front of the house. The ground was moving back and forth as if I was on a skateboard. Then it slowly calmed down. The quake only lasted two minutes, but to me it felt like eternity. Then, an hour later the next quake hit.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Photo gallery: Santiago, city in ruins

In recent weeks we got many different figures from Chile. Most recently we heard that 800,000 people lost their homes in the quake.

If you want numbers I can give you a lot: Right now, it’s officially 342 dead and 97 missing. 2,750 schools were destroyed, the quake caused 29 billion dollars worth of damages, 55,000 flats and houses were destroyed. 446 inmates broke out of the prisons. 176 of them have been found. I assume that these figures are correct. Shortly after the earthquake, I remembered Earthquake in Chile written by Heinrich von Kleist in 1810. This text has incredible force and topicality. Much of what happened then happened here on 27 February. For example, the minutes after the quake on the street: perfect strangers suddenly started talking with one another. Whether a cleaning woman or a nana – suddenly everyone felt the need to speak with one another. There was an incredible sense of amicability there and everyone was happy that nothing worse had happened and talked as if to confirm their own existence. It was an incredible moment.

How are the people in Chile doing today?

They’re trying to get back to normal. There is a huge sense of solidarity with the people in the affected areas. The people are collecting donations for them and want to support them. Yet, the catastrophe has two sides: The quake not only destroyed buildings, but also destroyed a social crust. This crust, which concealed the striking difference between the poor and the rich, was broken open. This explains the lootings that suddenly began in the south. Unexpectedly, a lawless space was created there. Not only food was looted, but even flat screen TVs were carried out of the shops. Later, people stopped cars, pulled the drivers out and drove off. Flats and houses were looted. It was a kind of complete unleashing and sudden participation in wealth that the people had only ever dreamed of before. The government was forced to send 12,000 soldiers to the region.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut
Reinhard Maiworm: „The quake not only destroyed buildings, but also destroyed a social crust"
(Photo: Goethe-Institut)
The Chilean consulate general in Hamburg asked Germany for support. They especially urgently need medicines like insulin, antibiotics and bandages. What else do the people in Chile lack?

Many simply need a place to stay. Many accommodations were irreparably damaged and that not by the quake, but by the tsunami that triggered the earthquake. The tragic thing is that the tsunami warning wasn’t announced; the early warning system failed, there were communication problems in the military. The wave was over 30 metres high and cost many lives. Autumn is beginning now here, it’s raining more frequently and people urgently need accommodation. There are two schemes for this: the Chilean government is responding with so-called mediaaguas, those are wooden barracks with sloped roofs – like the ones in the slums. There are some architects here who are warning – and not wrongly – they fear that they are building the slums of tomorrow here. Because these things aren’t going to be torn down again; they’ll stay. The other model involves large, sturdy tents. These tents only have a temporary character and that is important in order to stimulate the building of proper houses again.

The sum of 1.9 billion euro that the Chilean government plans to invest in reconstruction in the affected regions sounds like very little compared with the high cost of the damages.

It’s true. Chile is an incredibly wealthy country and one would expect the state to invest more. There is no supply emergency as there is in Haiti. Yet in the meantime, they’re already talking about raising taxes, although the prices have risen enormously since the earthquake already.


In part because in some towns up to 90 percent of the industrial fishing fleet were ruined. The harvests can’t be transported. The grape harvest, for example, was fully under way, but the fruit couldn’t be exported. The dessert fruit usually goes to the United States and the grapes to Europe. The poor transport situation has now led to the products rotting here.

In the meantime, the media only rarely report about Chile. What did you think of the media reporting after the quake?

Immediately following the first quake I was unable to follow the reports; I was completely cut off from the outside world. I had no water, no power, no telephone, and no internet. But, then I heard about the CNN tsunami. After all, we made a world record with magnitude 8.8. News is by no means lasting. It may have consequences at first. We can see that with Haiti. In the meantime the situation there has been forgotten in many places. No one is reporting on it anymore. News follows the principle of the Olympic Games: Higher, faster, further. Anything else is of no value in the media.

The building that houses the Goethe-Institut was also damaged.

We had to close the institute for one week, and then the stress analysts came and allowed us to use a part of the building temporarily. It’s a four-storey building. On the top floor, where the classrooms are, we now have the open-air model. In addition, there are extensive cracks; one wall is at risk of breaking down to the outside.

Are you able to focus on restoration now or is there still a risk of aftershocks?

They’re going on all the time. So far, we’ve had over 260 aftershocks at magnitudes of 4.5 and higher. It’s like figure skating: 5.9, 5.6, 6.1 ... The tectonic plates are still very wedged with one another. So, it’s possible that this thing may soon jump back into horizontal position – then we can expect another huge rumble. We’re living on a powder keg.

Half of the churches were damaged or destroyed. What about other cultural sites?

Some are very bad. Many things are closed down. For example, there is a large museum in Santiago that was finally rededicated five years ago after the 1985 earthquake destroyed it. It was hit badly again. Large theatres like the teatro municipal in the centre are also closed. They won’t be rebuilt any time soon. Right now, they’re just cleaning up and assessing where things can continue at all. We had to cancel a number of events and more will be added. But I set very different priorities now and assess things differently. For if there’s one thing I’ve learned here in Chile, it’s that after the quake is before the quake.

Angelika Luderschmidt held the interview.
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