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Mar 3, 2010 12:20 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Chilean families on East End worry about quake victims

Mar 3, 2010 12:20 PM

For the second time in as many months, East End residents are huddled around televisions, their hands clasped in prayer or covering their gaping mouths, watching images of death and destruction in their native country.

This time it is Chilean expatriates who are desperately trying to reach relatives thousands of miles away, and watching as cameras show towns and streets familiar to them flattened by Mother Nature’s most destructive force—an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the South American country early Saturday morning, claiming at least 800 lives, according to the most recent estimates.

On Tuesday evening, Juan Ruiz and his wife, Maria, sat with relatives on the couch in their Shinnecock Hills home watching a Chilean news station feed images via satellite to a giant television screen. The picture jumped from footage of one destroyed neighborhood to another.

“My son is in Chile right now,” Ms. Ruiz said. “The earthquake cracked the walls and ceiling of the house. It is too dangerous for him to stay in the house. My sister, she lost everything.”

The Ruizes are lucky: Their relatives are being forced to sleep outside and eat at makeshift community soup kitchens, but they are alive and safe.

For many with loved ones in the quake zone, or in the coastal areas leveled by the tsunami that swept ashore shortly after the earthquake hit after 3 a.m. on Saturday, the internet has been the sole connection to their relatives in Chile. Facebook has become a lifeline.

“They made me so nervous—I was calling and calling and calling all day on Saturday,” said Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon, an active member of the Latino community who has lived on the East End for nearly two decades. “Then I saw on Saturday night that my niece was on Facebook, and she said that everyone was okay. I only finally got through to them on Monday night.”

Paulina Castro said she was alerted of the quake early Saturday morning by her uncle, Oswaldo Duarte, who had just returned from Chile a few days earlier. “We were panicking,” she said.

Ms. Castro, who lives in Southampton, has communicated to family in Chile mostly via the internet and through three brief phone calls, all of which were interrupted by losses in service.

For Jorge Kusanovic, the role of information seeker was oddly reversed in the early morning hours Saturday. Mr. Kusanovic had just gotten off work from an overnight shift as a security guard at the Montauk Manor. He got home to East Hampton just after 6 a.m. local time, or 4 a.m. in Chile, barely 20 minutes after the quake had struck, and turned on the television as the first report of the quake scrolled across the screen of local morning news. He had only two weeks earlier returned from a vacation to visit relatives in Chile and his wife, Maria, had remained in the country for what was supposed to have been an extra few weeks.

“I called her and got through, amazingly—the quake had only been 45 minutes earlier,” he recalled. “When I talked to her, there was no electricity and it was still dark, and the aftershocks were still happening, and they were calling each other’s names. They said there was so much dust in the air they couldn’t open their eyes and were having trouble breathing.”

His wife and her relatives were sure their town, Villa Alemana, had been struck by a strong quake. Mr. Kusanovic, watching television reports on the East End, was able to tell them that they were actually more than 250 miles from the epicenter.

“They realized it must have been very, very serious for others,” he said, recalling how he helped frightened people huddling in the pre-dawn 
darkness 5,000 miles away understand what was happening to them. “I held the phone up to the television so they 
could hear what the newsman was saying.”

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