The ocean rises and falls like always on the beach at Pelluhue, Chile. Salt spray in the nose. It’s a beach that could be in Oregon or Australia, quiet and lovely, the autumn sun cutting through the dry air of any west coast in the subtropics. There are no birds. There’s nowhere good to nest, as the tall grass is all plastered to the charcoal-covered dunes and the Monterey pines are tipped with rust, poisoned by salt water that recently inundated the land. The vast back-dune landscape is all sand and a few bubbling springs of fresh water, and if it weren’t for the occasional cement platform, each carefully crusted in patio, kitchen, or bathroom tiles, you wouldn’t know that the sandy beach was a neighborhood two months ago. It’s been erased. The springs are water supply, still running two months after the subdivision was scrambled by a tsunami, the remains promptly scavenged by robbers.
Two days ago, we found one home left in the beachfront town, sea algae pasted to the first-story walls up to the ceiling, the electricity meter frozen in time, the roof hanging off. In a shack back by the road, just four walls and a hanging piece of plastic as a door, a retired couple with maybe 20 teeth between them pounded nails, shuffling trusses into place to get a roof on before the rainy season takes hold for real. They said they figured it would be two weeks. I asked what they were thinking, rebuilding in a place that’s now so obviously a tsunami hazard, and the señor gestured at the view. A tranquil, broad river, flowing out to the sea. The dunes standing guard against storms. The sunlight glinting off waves and bits of rubble. “Where else do you get this?” he asked. And what else could he afford, I wondered.
In Constitución, the next real city up the coast, hundreds, maybe thousands of cormorants dried their wings in the dead brown forest of blue-gum eucalyptus on the town’s formerly festive river island. Hundreds of locals were on the low sand bar, partying and camping, the night of the tsunami. Most died. The riverbank facing the scene is full of pine shacks and small homes, ranging from about 3 meters by 4 to maybe 6 by 8, with corrugated zinc roofs. Troops and 15,000 volunteers in the “a roof for Chile” program have built something like 20,000 of these homes in 2 months, and the goal is to get everyone out of tents this year. A couple people told us nobody needed the camping pad we brought to donate, as everyone in the community had received a mattress, even those still living in tents. For all the efforts toward relief, the riverside community was not the cheeriest. Everyone is living in mud left by the tsunami. Many of those living there were teens and their children. The place was silent, peaceful, and smells of Chile’s ubiquitous wood smoke. A young mother with home-bleached hair told us that the tsunami wrecked the place, and then thieves came and took the remains.