World and Nation

In earthquake’s aftermath, invisible cracks threaten Chile’s capital

SANTIAGO, Chile — From outside, there is no sign that the century-old building where Cecilia Painaqueo lived with her four children was damaged by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.

But inside her second-floor apartment, the bedroom walls collapsed and the wooden ceiling buckled. Painaqueo said there were a lot of so-called “casas de mentira,” or houses that lie, in her central city neighborhood.

“You don’t see the damage by standing on the street,” she said. “You have to go inside.”

In many ways, her words sum up the state of Chile’s elegant, orderly capital 10 days after it was shaken by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake. While so much of the southern parts of this country lie in ruins, this city of high-rises and tree-lined boulevards appears mostly unscathed, a tribute, many say, to its strict building codes.

But many people in this city of 3.3 million still do not know if their lives will ever be the same. The worse off tend to be those left out of this country’s economic growth.

Unsightly and unsafe camps, primarily occupied by Peruvian immigrants, have sprouted across the city’s historic center. In poor neighborhoods, thousands of people are still waiting for schools to reopen and basic services to be restored.

The poor are not the only ones living in limbo. Thousands of middle-class families, without insurance or savings, have been forced to move in with friends and relatives after the quake left their shoddily built condominiums uninhabitable.

For decades, Chile’s economy has been marked by two things: dynamic growth and a gaping disparity between the rich and the poor. The first attribute goes a long way in explaining how so much of Santiago withstood a temblor that was hundreds of times stronger than the one that flattened Haiti’s capital in January.

The second attribute explains why the earthquake hit some families so much harder than others.

Less than 5 miles away from the old adobe neighborhood where Painaqueo lives, the buildings in a section of the city known as “Sanhattan” are made from reinforced concrete and steel. It was hard to find anyone in the neighborhood who had been severely affected by the earthquake.

Across town at the Central Park condominium building, a sign hanging over the entrance to the building read, “Ground Zero.” And camped out on the couches in the lobby were Jorge Ibarra and his wife, Elena Celis, who have spent every night there since the earthquake caused the tower to list to one side.