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How a Region in Chile Survived an Earthquake With Just a Couple of Scratches

Most of the buildings and houses in the island of Chiloé are made out of lumber, which can resist strong shakes.

The colorful stilt houses on Chile's Chiloé island are made of flexible lumber. (Steven dosRemedios/Flickr)

This story was originally published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

One of the reasons tourists come to the Chiloé island, in the south of Chile, are the palafitos. These are wooden houses, colorfully painted. They rest on tall stilts and, with the coming and goings of the tides, the buildings sit over the ocean most of the time.

Though the structures look fairly old and weak, the Chiloé palafitos survived the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that shook the area on December 25 without major problems. Most of the island’s houses and famous churches held up well, too. They’re all built of wood and are considered World Heritage by UNESCO (there is even one that holds together without a single steel nail).

This is all precisely because they are built with lumber. “One of the materials that works best with earthquakes is wood, because of its flexibility. The building’s structure permites this to move along the tremors and it doesn’t oppose resistance to them,” the architect Jorge García explained to the local newspaper La Estrella de Chiloé.

Besides the fact that lumber is the favorite local construction material, the area benefitted from Chile’s strict building codes, which were created because of how common natural disasters are in the country.

The earthquake, which was felt all the way to Argentina, had consequences for some highways and bridges. But despite its strength, there were no casualties reported. Chiloé is a mainly rural area, with only 167,000 inhabitants and without too many tall buildings—though experts say that seven-story wooden buildings would have been just fine, too.

In 2015, a tsunami slammed into Coquimbo along with an earthquake. The combination forced 1 million people from their homes. (Carlos Vera/Reuters)

Still, in spite of its flexibility, lumber isn’t perfect. Chiloe’s residents were fortunate that there wasn’t a tsunami along with the earthquake, which happened in the center of the country back in 2010, and in the north in 2015. “The power of the ocean is strong. And lumber structures are less resistant to a tsunami. But in an earthquake, due to its low weight, [lumber] works well,” the engineer Rodrigo Mujica told the website Emol.com. Another problem with lumber is the risk of fires (a lot of houses use firewood for heating), which could be avoided through proper safety measures.

Chile is a country with a long history of earthquakes. In 2015, the area of Coquimbo, in the north, experimented an 8.4 quake, which created more problems. It rattled older builders made from bricks, cement, and adobe, built before Chile had the strict building code it has now.

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