This is the original, unedited (aka longer) version of my post for the American Red Cross.
Last Wednesday, February 27, marked the third anniversary of an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck off the central coast of Chile, triggering a massive tsunami that destroyed homes, businesses, landscapes and lives.
A week before the anniversary, I had the opportunity to travel to one of the most hard-hit areas, where the Red Cross is working with communities to not only help them recover from the double disaster, but also to be prepared for future disasters to which the region is prone.
Recovery is about more than just going in and fixing up an area that was affected by a disaster. At its core, it’s about helping people who’ve often lost everything to regain their footing and restart their lives. Even then, it’s not just physical. It’s emotional.
During my conversations with locals, I was genuinely moved by their sincerity and eagerness to tell their stories. One of my colleagues remarked how distressing it was for her to assist me with translating some of our conversations, namely my questions about how they survived.
The truth is, asking those questions used to bother me. But the more I’ve talked with people, the more I’ve realized that when they share their stories with me, they are more than just sharing a story; they’re continuing their healing process.
Yes, the stories are personal and emotional, but many people I’ve met are surprisingly ready to share – and more than just their tales of survival. It’s not uncommon that when I sit down with someone so they can tell their story – often one of devastation and loss – their priority is to make me comfortable, and sometimes even feed me. They’ve lost everything, yet they still invite me into their world as if I’m a friend coming over to chat for a bit.
When I met Nelson Valenzuela, an owner of a fish stand off the side of the main road running through Licantén, Chile, he didn’t just take time to sit down and chat with me. He made lunch for me and my colleagues – the best fish I’ve ever had.
We sat together enjoying Sierra literally fresh off the grill while he told us how just three years earlier the same ocean at our backs rose, in three separate waves, to overtake his home and community.
He told us how he was commuting back from Santiago early that morning when he felt and saw the road start to wave under the tremor of the quake. Three minutes later, he was racing back home and found himself jammed by rubble that blocked his truck so he had to flag down another car to take him home, even though everyone was fleeing from that direction.
“I tried calling my wife and my brother, but nothing was working. We were at least able to connect to Argentine radio to hear the tsunami warning. When we came across some police and asked them for information though, we actually knew more than they did,” Nelson said.
Nelson lost everything short of his life and his family. Prior to the disaster, he had a successful business that afforded him a large house and various vehicles, he said. But because of the economy, he didn’t trust the banks, so all of his savings were hidden around his home and properties.
“It was extremely traumatizing,” he said. “To have worked so hard, my whole life, and lose it all… I didn’t want to go back there.”
So, he started from scratch in a neighboring town and built his fish stand. Now he spends his days with his children at his side, preparing and selling fish while chatting with neighbors and tourists.
“I learned a lesson: Someone who works Sunday to Sunday can lose everything and none of that work will matter,” Nelson said. “But someone who lives simply and works less actually lives better and spends time on what matters.”
Now, he finds joy in helping others and giving what he can, even a simple but delicious lunch for some new friends.
“I carry this all deeply,” he said. “That’s why I love to give; I love to serve.”