Earthquake lessons: A Chilean city develops a new way of living with nature

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Earthquake lessons: A Chilean city develops a new way of living with nature
© Carolina A. Miranda
Earthquake lessons: A Chilean city develops a new way of living with nature
© Carolina A. Miranda

At first glance, the southern banks of the Maule River look positively lunar. The ground is bare, cleared of the construction and landscaping that once covered it. Taking shape are undulating mounds of earth being arranged by a team of earth movers into a design that bears a passing resemblance to some bizarre piece of land art.

Except this is no decorative project. The sculpted terrain is designed to help fortify this central Chilean city of Constitución from seasonal river flooding, occasional tsunamis and rising sea levels. Above all, the project offers a fresh way of thinking about how cities can contend with the ravages of climate: through acceptance.

In 2010, Chile was wracked by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled the entire Southern Cone and left a trail of devastation from the central port city of Valparaíso to the southern port of Talcahuano, which is almost 400 miles to the south. (Chilean daily El Mercurio has a staggering before-and-after photo essay that chronicled the damage.)

Constitución, a small working-class lumber mill city of 25,000, was especially hard hit. Not only did the city have to contend with the damage of the quake, which crumpled buildings in the historic city center, but a related tsunami — and its attendant 20-foot waves — roared up the mouth of the Maule River and demolished entire swaths of the city’s low-lying areas. []

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