From the print edition
SAMARA, Guanacaste – The sun rose Thursday morning over this quiet community along the Pacific coast as residents awoke to assess damage from the previous day’s powerful earthquake, the second-largest in Costa Rican history.
The epicenter of the magnitude-7.6 temblor was just 5 miles away. Yet, aside from a few homes and businesses that suffered structural damage, most residents in the area say they were lucky – it could’ve been much worse.
“Our only casualty was the fishes,” said Oscar Vargas, owner of the upscale Hotel Leyenda in Hojancha, which sustained heavy damage, including the destruction of a massive fish tank in the open-air hotel lobby. One hundred tilapia fish were killed.
Still, for 45 terrifying seconds, the 8:42 a.m. quake shook homes, businesses, schools and hospitals across the country, sending residents fleeing into the streets in panic. At Hotel Leyenda, television sets hit the floor, wine bottles tumbled off the shelves and hundreds of heavy Spanish tiles slid from the rooftop. Some of the tiles shattered in front of the hotel, while others collapsed into the lobby.
By Thursday, 530 aftershocks were registered.
Louise Walker, a 23-year-old expat from the U.S. state of Maryland, said many people in Sámara had a hard time sleeping Wednesday night. Aftershocks seemed to roll through every half-hour or so, she said. Some residents who live on the second floor took their beds to neighbors’ one-story homes, she added.
On Thursday morning, José Rodolfo Vargas, owner of Mini Super Las Olas in Sámara was sweeping up debris and fallen merchandise with his staff.
“I worked eight years, and in 10 seconds, wshhhh,” said Vargas, who estimated his losses at about $12,000.
President Laura Chinchilla visited Puntarenas and Guanacaste on Thursday to survey the damage, calling the country’s endurance during the earthquake “almost miraculous.”
“As we saw yesterday [Wednesday], the first feeling was of alarm and distress,” Chinchilla told reporters after arriving in the historic city of Santa Cruz, Guanacaste, where several homes and public buildings were damaged. “We do not want to underestimate the damage. Every incident is important, but this could have been truly catastrophic.”
While the temblor was felt across the country, causing destruction as far away as Sarchí, Alajuela, north of the capital, only 190 homes were destroyed, and no one was killed from falling debris.
The National Emergency Commission said it would not count as a quake casualty a 51-year-old woman from Filadelfia, Guanacaste, who died as the result of a heart attack Wednesday morning, making the official death toll zero.
Provinces most affected by the quake were Guanacaste, where 140 homes were destroyed, according to the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development, followed by Alajuela, with 40 homes and Puntarenas with 10. Surveyors are still checking on homes in remote areas of the region.
Some 240 people were left homeless, staying in local shelters set up by emergency officials, Radio Reloj reported.
In Alajuela, several homes were destroyed in the cantons of Zarcero, Grecia and Narano, and private companies and nonprofit organizations offered to provide vehicles, construction supplies and labor.
In Puntarenas, two communities are without potable water, but water and other services have been restored to the rest of the area.
While the powerful quake knocked out power in several coastal communities in Guanacaste, utility workers had restored electricity to 95 percent of the communities by Thursday.
Chinchilla praised the country’s teachers for maintaining order and knowing exactly what to do in a crisis situation.
“School children and teachers were very well prepared,” the president told Radio ADN Thursday morning.
She said the government response would focus on evaluating schools, hospitals, bridges and roads in the affected areas.
The public building most damaged Wednesday was Hospital Monseñor Sanabria in Puntarenas (see story, Page 5). Following the temblor, patients were evacuated to local clinics and other hospitals in the capital without incident, Chinchilla said.
She was also scheduled to meet with Nicoya Mayor Marco Jiménez, who told ADN that the second floor of the city’s municipal building was severely damaged. Still, Jiménez remained upbeat, saying, “God was with us.”
Public Works and Transport Ministry officials on Thursday said that most of the country’s bridges are in good shape. Only one bridge, over the Río Sucio in Sarapiquí, a canton in north-central Costa Rica, completely collapsed. Officials are preparing to replace it with a Bailey bridge, which should be completed in coming days.
Miraculously, despite damage to several roads, no communities were left isolated, the president said. A landslide blocked a main highway into the north-central city of San Carlos, and transportation officials urged motorists to use two other access roads until the road is repaired in the next two weeks.
In Sámara, now that the dust is settled and nerves calmed, neighbors had a chance to ponder their luck.
“The most beautiful thing is that the community became very close,” said Matteo Caretti, 33, a hotel manager who moved to Sámara from Italy nine years ago. “Everybody was out in the streets, helping each other.”
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Ashley Harrell, Alex Kaufman and Steve Ercolani reported from Sámara. Vanessa Garnica, Hannah J. Ryan, Matt Levin and David Boddiger reported from San José.