Faculty Members Experience the Chilean Earthquake

Three faculty members were stranded in Santiago, Chile, when the February 27 earthquake hit in the early morning hours: Tara Mohrfeld, full-time MBA program manager of operations and global initiatives; Dick Reizenstein, associate professor emeritus of marketing; and Jack Mills, lecturer and former Procter & Gamble executive. The three had arrived in Santiago the day before the earthquake hit to prepare for the full-time MBA’s international study tour; 64 students and 4 additional faculty members were traveling to Santiago to investigate the complexities of doing business internationally through experiential learning. Students were expected to evaluate a specific business issue and meet with educators, government officials, as well as with high-level leadership in both local and foreign companies to discuss how business is conducted in this specific global business environment.

Excerpts of the faculty members’ observations as they awaited their return to Knoxville are below.

Observations from Jack Mills
Monday, March 1, 2010

Chile earthquake pictureI want to first say "thank-you" for the words of concern from our UT family regarding our well-being and safety. Tara, Dick and I are fine. We have been blessed by the limited damage in Santiago; the excellent support of the hotel staff; and the efforts of our Santiago-based tour provider, who happens to be a UT alum.

The real tragedy is the impact that the earthquake has had on the people of Chile. We hear that the death toll is approximately 500 people which, when, compared on a per capita basis, is the equivalent of 7,500 to 10,000 people killed in a U. S. earthquake. Most of the losses are in cities along the coast. 

This was my third earthquake experience — one in Indonesia, one in Los Angeles, and now this one. This quake was by far the worst. I was awake when the quake hit. I immediately moved to the bedroom door with one foot in the hallway and one in the bedroom. I honestly thought the hotel might fall. The experience lasted maybe 45 seconds. The scary part was the earthquake’s growing in energy and intensity. It was impossible to know when it would stop or when it had peaked.

The building standards in Santiago are impressive. The hotel obviously was designed to sway and roll, but not break. The only damage to the building is cosmetic — mainly cracked plaster, despite an intense pounding from the earthquake.

Without question, the earthquake is a tragedy for the people of Chile; however, damage is concentrated to the South and along parts of the coast. Except for the airport, Santiago has remained in excellent condition.

Observations from Tara Mohrfeld
Monday, March 1, 2010

Unlike Jack, I had never experienced an earthquake, so I didn't realize what was happening at the time. Much like Jack, however, I thought the building was going to fall down around us. That was by far the scariest moment of my life to date.

Our hotel, Hotel Atton El Bosque, did suffer some minor damage but was far from falling down. The hotel staff and management have done a wonderful job of keeping everything running smoothly and efficiently. Their high level of service never diminished; they stayed by their posts and helped us immediately after the terramoto (earthquake).  We were even served a breakfast buffet the morning of the quake. Despite the numerous aftershocks (which have lessened), we feel safe being here.

It is extremely important to note how well the city of Santiago has held up and not suffered any major damage. I also have been impressed with the building codes and structures that are in place here. Most buildings in this area and the nearby financial district are built on rock and with very strict seismic codes. We are very, very lucky. We were able to drive around the city today and, although some of the older buildings did suffer damage, the city is amazingly intact and functioning.

Not so fortunate are those south of here, closer to the coast, where most buildings are smaller and built on sand. There were many native tourists in that area when the quake hit as this is their summer vacation season. That news footage is real and accurate.

I remain impressed with Eric and his staff, the hotel and its staff, the city of Santiago, the UT MBA students and program staff, and my two colleagues with me here in Santiago. Thank God that they were/are here with me.

Observations from Dick Reizenstein
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tara and Jack deserve kudos for their professionalism and cool-headedness. Tara was especially fantastic in helping with arrangements and the coordination of all three student groups in keeping everyone posted and up-to-date with current information. Eric Ostermeier, managing director of Latin American Study Tours (our tour provider), has done everything that could be expected — and then some — to keep us safe and to keep MBA students and faculty informed of the situation. Amy Cathey followed up with the MBAs to ensure that they returned to Knoxville safely, except for the three that decided to spend some time in Lima, Peru, where their plane had landed. She also kept in touch with us and gave us every bit of support we possibly could have asked for.

Things are starting to return to normal here.  We traveled around the city Sunday and Monday and, outside of a few roof shingles and a church facade that collapsed, things looked pretty normal in the areas we saw.  Except for the few sections of town that were constructed on sandy soil (most of Santiago is built on rock, much more earthquake-resistant), Santiago was in amazingly good shape. There were lines at gas stations, and the convenience stores that were open were doing a lot of business. Other than that, it looked like a normal Sunday and Monday in this large, modern city.

Some of the wineries, however, took a huge hit.  One prominent Chilean winery had its stainless steel tanks and barrel storage of premium wine collapse.

Main damage was near the epicenter at Conception as well as in Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. In addition to their proximity to the 8.8 earthquake, which was 500 times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti, there was extensive damage and flooding from five tsunami waves, many of which were approximately seven feet high. In addition, there was some civil disorder and looting until the government sent in the army yesterday. We now understand that order has been restored, and food and water are being distributed.

Overall, we have been amazed at the resilience of the Chilean people. Those with whom we have been in contact in Santiago have been calm under stress and have gone about the business of cleanup and getting back to normalcy.  By yesterday, the city looked like a normal day with businesses and restaurants open, people going to work, our hotel fully cleaned up and staffed, grocery stores open and shelves fully stocked. It has been a remarkable experience to see how an event that could have wrecked Santiago has been dealt with so effectively by its courageous citizens.

Downtown Santiago remains relatively unscathed. No collapsed buildings due to good building codes and materials, except in the very few sections of the city where the soil was sandy. There is some broken glass but amazingly little and very few broken windows in the tallest buildings. There are some injuries, but only one death in the city - a heart attack right after the quake. Stores are open and stocked, the few power and water failures are being rectified, the stock exchange opened yesterday, and life is returning to normal. (The coast around Conception is a different story as it was close to the epicenter and had five tidal waves - devastation and death are as the media are portraying it there.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Obtaining flights out of Santiago back to Knoxville proved to be a challenge. Jack Mills had reservations to travel out of Santiago on Wednesday evening, but the airport had not opened by then, and his flight was cancelled. He decided instead to travel with a group who needed to be in Buenos Aires. Jack took an eight-hour van ride, sometimes on one-lane roads, to Mendoza, Argentina; he  flew from Mendoza to Buenos Aires and then to the United States, arriving in Atlanta on March 5.

Tara Mohrfeld and I were luckier; we were not able to get reservations on the Wednesday flight so we booked reservations on a Delta flight leaving Thursday, the first day the airport was open for international commercial flights.

On Thursday afternoon when we arrived at the Santiago airport, we noticed that the airport was still standing and was pretty much intact; the main damage was to the airport’s technology, concrete flyovers, and roads in the Departure area that had “pancaked.”  Flight check-in was moved to the arrival level. There were long lines of travelers that originated in the parking lots and weaved into the terminal. It was chaotic because individual airlines were not clearly designated so everyone had to spend a great deal of time looking for their right line, and there was no signage. Fortunately, Hugo Mena Belmar, our very effective tour guide who had been hired to escort the full-time MBAs that week, already had scouted the airport; he was very experienced and cool-headed. He not only helped us find our way, but helped many others as well. He obtained our boarding passes and got us through the airport bottleneck very efficiently.

Once inside the airport (which took about an hour even with Hugo’s help), the process was much more efficient with airline employees pointing passengers in the right direction. Baggage was sent up the baggage carousel conveyors instead of the normal direction of down, but the process must have worked since we all got our luggage upon landing.

The interior of the terminal did not have air conditioning yet, but it looked much the same as when we landed the week before except for some missing ceiling tiles and misaligned metal sheeting on the roof. Amazingly, there did not seem to be much damage inside the terminal. Although the terminal was constructed with sheet glass in the ceilings, walls, etc., there was no broken glass that I could see – another verification that the strict Chilean building codes had saved both damage and lives. Restaurants, stores, newsstands, etc. were still operational with full menus and shelves, though not every menu item was available — again, surprising both Tara and me. Some informational screens showing arriving/departing flights were working, others were not. Security was more perfunctory than the norm, which was the only really worrisome thing I saw. Jet-ways were still working, and airport and airline employees continued to work seemingly unfazed by the couple of aftershocks we experienced while we waited for our flight.

When our flight landed on the runway in Atlanta, many of the passengers applauded. Obviously, people were really relieved to be back on solid ground in the United States, and I certainly include Tara and me in those sentiments. 

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