LIMA – Peru, a nation accustomed to the ground shaking underfoot almost daily, is now preparing to deal with a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that might someday occur, and which in Lima would leave at least 50,000 dead and more than 250,000 families homeless, according to the disaster scenario invented for a drill carried out Thursday night.
At 8:00 p.m. Thursday, alarms sounded all along a coastal area populated by more than 17 million people, warning locals to evacuate buildings and low-altitude areas because of a hypothetical magnitude-8.5 earthquake and succeeding tsunami waves 12 meters (39 feet) high.
Not everyone warned of the pretend disaster took part in the drill, despite forceful campaigns to raise awareness and bring back frightening memories of the magnitude-8 earthquake in Pisco in 2007 that left 595 people dead.
In Lima, with 10 million inhabitants and avenues jammed with chaotic traffic, shopping malls and office buildings hurried their customers and workers into the streets to occupy “safe zones,” circles painted in open areas outdoors.
Only the most conscientious locals left their homes to hurry to the “meeting points” in open spaces like parks, while in Callao, the port city next to Lima, the more prudent went up inside tall buildings to save themselves from the supposed tsunami, theoretically capable of submerging up to the fifth floor.
Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, wearing a safety helmet and vest, evacuated Government Palace to supervise the emergency drills around the rest of the country from a communications center installed in Lima’s main square, surrounded by curiosity seekers who simply ignored the alarms.
“In an earthquake the government must deal with difficult circumstances. We’ve got a long way to go but we have also improved a lot in recent years,” Kuczynski said a few meters (yards) from the Lima cathedral, reconstructed several times for earthquake damage.
Among the citizens astonished to see the president was Alex Marticorena, who told EFE he didn’t know there was going to be a drill and warned that in downtown Lima “the buildings are ancient and the slightest temblor has people in despair.”
An Indeci emergency management official, Ivan Zapata, told EFE that an earthquake like the one being imitated “will cause many fatalities because there are many high-risk areas,” such as the hills around Lima with all their flimsy housing.
In the weeks before the drill, Indeci asked people in those densely populated neighborhoods to always have a backpack ready with water, a flashlight, a battery-operated radio and food for several days, and to locate safe places inside their homes to ride out the quake, and later go to the meeting points.
Other regions in Peru carried out similar training sessions, including one rescue at sea, and they will continue this Friday and Saturday in the southern province of Arequipa, where shelters will be installed, humanitarian aid will be distributed and searches will be launched for imaginary missing persons.