sábado, 1 de febrero de 2014

The Cartago earthquake of April 13, 1910

The Cartago earthquake of April 13, 1910
 Amelia and Philip Calvert, from the book “A Year of Costa Rican Natural History”

The central plateaus of Costa Rica, with their healthful and delightful climate, beautiful scenery, rich fertile soil and abundant and varied productions of grain, fruits, vegetables and cattle, are truly a Paradise on earth. But there was a serpent in man's first Paradise and there is one dark shadow over this lovely land the disastrous earthquakes that frequently visit it, particularly Cartago and its immediate vicinity. The earliest earthquakes of which there are any records occurred in 1608, when the recorder (sindico) of Cartago complained
that "the poor people lived in miserable huts without walls and with leaky roofs of rushes, and had no churches, because all had been broken and destroyed," and a little later are definite records of rebuilding and repairing houses and churches injured by the earthquakes.

From 1608 until 1851 indeed, almost the only records of the earthquakes are not of the shocks themselves but of the houses destroyed or the repairs needed and consequently only the more violent shocks are mentioned. Thus in 1620, Cartago was dismantled of houses, houses were damaged, in 1723, 1637 and 1678 accompanying the eruption of Irazú, there were earthquakes injuring the houses, the destruction of the city being completed by the ashes and sand sifting over it. These records continue at intervals throughout the eighteenth century.

On September 2, 1841, Cartago was completely destroyed by violent earthquakes, with a loss of sixteen lives, the total destruction of fifteen hundred houses with eight public buildings and churches, while five hundred houses were so badly injured that they required removal later. From 1851 to 1887, there is a series of records of the number of earthquakes during each year, made by personal observation only and without instruments. Most of these were noted in San Jose and in one year (1876) twenty-four were so recorded, but there is no mention of any particularly strong shocks in Cartago, although doubtless some shocks were felt there.

When the Observatorio Meteorológico Nacional, later the Instituto Físico-Geografico, was founded in San Jose in 1888, two seismographs were installed in the Institute, so that from that year there are records both of strong shocks and weak trembling of the earth. The number so recorded by the instruments in San Jose varies from thirty-seven in 1888 (including one disastrous shock in Alajuela and San Jose) to one hundred and eighty-two in
1906, but Cartago was freed from earthquakes than usual during all this period, and it appeared as if the region were becoming more stable. In 1909 the seismographs in San Jose recorded only four shocks.

We settled in Cartago on May 7, 1909 and experienced the first earthquake there on June 23 about 4 a.m. It was strong enough to waken us by the jerky motion it imparted to the beds but not to cause any particular alarm even among the Costa Ricans. On the fourth of November we felt one slight shock and on the twenty-fifth of the same month there were two. The next occurred on March 1st, 1910, and this last, although we did not consider it alarming and remained at work in our room; caused the Costa Ricans to rush out into the street at the very first instant the tremor was felt.

On the thirteenth of April, 1910, while P. was away at Atenas, everyone in Cartago was aroused at 12:36 a. m. by a rather violent earthquake that shook us in our beds and rumbled like a distant express train. It was decidedly unpleasant, but as we had had lighter earthquakes before and always found them over with one shock I lay still. Sometime after there was a second, slight, shock. By this time the people were pouring into the streets and the women were screaming and working themselves into hysterics. This also I had heard and as my room opened directly on the street, at easy jumping distance, by means of an immense casement window, I had no real fear of being hemmed in and indeed thought it was all over. Things were calming down and I had almost fallen into a dozen when we heard the roar coming again and at 1.15 there was a really terrific shock. The bed rocked, the walls shook to and fro and groaned, the wooden ceiling creaked, the windows rattled horribly and plaster and tiles began to fall. This time I did not dare to get up but buried my head under the pillow as some protection against tiles in case one should break through the wooden ceiling. As soon as the violent shock was over and one could stand, I rose and dressed after a fashion, standing by the window to be ready to jump if necessary. There were no more hard shocks before I left the room, in fact I was in and out many times gathering more garments, but an almost constant trembling, very disconcerting. With one exception every person in the hotel was out, a most extraordinary pajama and nightgown parade.

One by one we slunk back for more clothes, carrying things to the patio or vestibule to put them on. In the streets wailing, shrieking women ran up and down, babies cried, dogs howled and barked and every cock in town crowed. But there was no real disorder. The police were everywhere and efficient; they pressed the horses in the livery stables into service and patrolled the streets well. Although the electric light poles rocked to and fro like drunken things, the lights did not go out, which no doubt added greatly to the orderliness. There were no fires for the good reason that there is almost nothing in these houses to burn and never any fires kept in the kitchens at night.

By degrees the Costa Rican families near us drew towards the Plaza and left us Americans near the hotel where we all preferred to remain. Fortunately the night was not exceptionally cold and was clear saving for an occasional mist. At two o'clock came another violent shock. I do not know what caused the strange rumbling roar that preceded each hard shock, whether it was actually the rumbling of the shaken earth or of the walls as the wave motion struck one house after another, but the roar was present and was one of the most nerve-racking parts of the experience. Once out on the streets, in fact, we thought there was practically no danger from earthquakes here, as the houses were so low and the streets so wide that the risk from tiles or falling walls seemed almost nothing.

Indoors, at least in the well built houses, the chief danger appeared to be in falling plaster or in tiles that might conceivably be driven through the wooden ceilings. The natives pulled out mattresses and blankets and bunked more or less comfortably in the street. Some brought tables and made little sheltered beds for the children by pinning blankets around the table legs. We Americans from the hotel, a picturesque, blanket-draped tribe of Indians, walked up and down the street and as nothing more happened for nearly an hour some of us ventured to return to our rooms, but were quickly driven out again by another violent shock.

After this warning we fetched out chairs and camped in the street and as the next four or five shocks were quite mild we fell asleep under the stars, until we began to slip back to our rooms about five o'clock. In the morning, after coffee, we walked about the streets and were amazed that such earthquakes did so little damage, relatively. The tile roofs suffered terribly; looking through our ceiling ventilator we could see the sky between the ribs of the roof. Plaster was cracked and in one room in the hotel a whole side fell. In the storeroom, in drug stores and crockery shops there was much breakage. A number of churches lost corners or minarets or images; one had the arches over the windows badly cracked and was no doubt much weakened. The new, still unfinished Peace Palace had one wall cracked and parts of the ornamental railing around the roof thrown down. Seventeen poorly built small houses were completely demolished as well as many outstanding walls and outbuildings. No one was killed or injured. P. returned from Atenas on the evening of the thirteenth, reporting that the shocks were so slight there that he did not think it worthwhile to get up. As Atenas is only thirty miles away the extremely local character of these earthquakes is apparent. In the twenty-four hours after the first shock, I counted thirty well-marked and distinct earthquakes, by "coffee" on the fourteenth, thirty-five. Between these were many little tremors whose beginning and end could not be felt.

Earthquakes continued until we left for Juan Viñas on April 24, with gradually decreasing intensity and frequency. For five nights following the thirteenth we dared not undress, but took such rest as we could on mattresses on the floor and later on a bed in a patio covered with galvanized iron, which we all supposed safe. How little we knew!

After thirty-six hours of earthquakes the town was on the edge of hysteria. The wildest rumors circulated; Poás and Irazú were in eruption (though we could not see how anybody could believe that Irazú could be in eruption and no one in Cartago either see, hear or smell it), the volcanoes in Chiriquí were in eruption, the tail of the comet (Halley's comet, which was visible about noon on the thirteenth) had struck the earth, the end of the world was approaching, and so on. A large proportion of the population had moved outdoors and there was plenty of time and opportunity to distribute and embroider these legends. As it was also said that all wires were down, no one knew how the information had been received. It soon proved that wires were not down and that Cartago had suffered more than most places and when the full reports came in it appeared that the disturbance was localized in the central valleys. It was stated that both Poás and Irazú showed a slight but unmistakable column of steam, at 1:30 a.m., on the thirteenth, immediately after the third and most violent shock, which was credible enough. A "rosy glow in the sky" was also spoken of, but certainly there was no such glow visible to us.

On the morning of April 15; there was a tremendous outburst of bombs, ringing of bells and so on and a large religious procession passed through the streets, accompanied by a greater number of people than we saw following any of the Easter processions. This was a special service to implore the intercession of the saints and prevent the recurrence of earthquakes. A more thorough examination of the town and the neighboring country showed that the damage was greater than we had at first thought. Few houses were actually thrown down, but many had lost much of their roofing and plaster or were so badly cracked that repairs seemed out of the question. Many families left their houses and camped nearby, in all sorts of temporary shelters. The Government shipped a number of army tents and quantities of canvas, but these were not sufficient, so that tents were constructed of old quilts, carpets, hides, sheets, blankets, boards, scraps of galvanized iron, boxes, coffee sacks, any and everything that could by any possibility be stretched or fastened to keep out wind. Many an ox-cart, with its tongue propped on a box, sheltered two layers of people, one below between the wheels, a second in the cart itself. In the poorer parts of Cartago were regular gypsy-like encampments, families cooking on improvised hearths of paving stones while the dogs skulked about trying to improve the opportunity by snatching at the cooking viands. The plazas were as full of carts and tents as they could be placed. The square containing the Peace Palace was surrounded by a thick wall about three feet high, topped with a low iron fence. This wall was a favorite place for the tents, which were built against it so that it formed one side. The big bandstand in the main plaza sheltered at least a dozen families; canvas enclosed it and the space within was partitioned off by quilts hung on ropes. Six of the guests at the hotel had a tent made and set up in this park, sleeping on benches or on mattresses laid on boards. They had plenty of company as there was many other tents close by, but as this canvas was not waterproof their tents were not very serviceable.

The immediate fear of earthquakes having a little abated, thieving began and we heard the police shooting at thieves. There was no real disorder, however, and astonishingly little squabbling or crowding to get good places for tents. The most destitute families were supplied with food by the government. The thirteenth, fourteenth and the morning of the fifteenth of April were clear with flying clouds. The afternoon of the fifteenth, however, was increasingly cloudy, hazy, sultry, and hot, with a strange, blinding glare and muttering thunder. The signs proved only too truthful and before five o'clock the dreaded rain began, light at first but soon settling into a steady hard downpour that lasted several hours, with a few intervals of mist. The effect of such a rain upon the shattered roofs may be imagined. In a very short time the water was pouring into our room in streams. Fortunately the covered patio near our door, having a galvanized roof, was still dry, and we carried our trunks there, covered them and by hard work we kept specimens and clothing dry. In spite of bathtub, pails and pitchers the greater part of the floor of our room was soon like a lake until the water found its way through to the ground below. The rains caused much discomfort and suffering in the town for there were few roofs not leaking badly and many of the improvised tents afforded no protection against even a moderate shower.

Workmen to set tiles were at a premium the following days and we considered ourselves very lucky to have our own particular leak repaired on the third day of the rains. The constant succession of shakings seemed to have no bad effect on our menagerie and another Mecistogaster transformed successfully on the morning of April 18. The accounts of great and serious changes in the crater of Irazú, with tales of eruptions, slides, yawning crevices and the like, together with the constant earthquakes, kept the town in a fever of apprehension. However on April 20 Professor Tristan accompanied by Sr. A. Rudín, made an official investigation of the craters. They found that the volcano was absolutely normal and quiescent, with no trace of any increased activity. Similar reports of new volcanoes opening on the hillside of Paraiso, with numerous hot springs, were equally unfounded. From April 24 to May 1 we were both at Juan Viñas. Amelia returned alone to Cartago on May 1. When I looked about the town then I was impressed with the number of houses marked with yellow chalk or paint. All houses so marked had been condemned as unsafe by the board of government engineers who had examined every room in every house in Cartago. Our hotel had been pronounced quite safe. The poorer houses were constructed of adobe, or sun-dried, bricks alone, plastered inside and out. The better houses, of which the hotel and a large house opposite, both built by the Troyo family, were excellent examples, had bamboo poles built into the walls. The bamboo served to bind the bricks together and greatly increased both the strength and elasticity of the structure. In our hotel some of the walls were fully three feet thick and two-foot walls were frequent. Some of the inner partitions, such as the one between our room and the next, were actually built of fire burnt brick and the whole seemed exceedingly strong. No portion of it was marked by the engineers to be taken down or rebuilt, and indeed one of them asserted no earthquake could possibly throw down such buildings.

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