I Was In An Earthquake: Dominican Republic 2003

In September of 2003, we decided to take a family vacation to the Dominican Republic.  It was our 1st destination family trip ever.   I was excited for a week of relaxing, switching off from work, and enjoying the sand and sun.  The kids were extra excited as they had never been anywhere except for Quebec to camp at my dad’s trailer.   We stayed at the Occidental Allegro Playa Dorada in Puerto Plata.  The week long, all inclusive, vacation was from September 21 to September 28, 2003.

It was a long day, we were up at 3:00 A.M. to get to Pearson International Airport in Toronto for our 6:00 A.M departure.  After arriving in the DR, spending the day exploring the grounds, having dinner and enjoying the nightly entertainment, we decided it was time to call it a day. We were officially zonked after an exciting first day of fun in the sun!

Quoting from my scrapbook of 14 years ago:

“I went to bed around 11:15 PM, after all it was a long 1st day and we were up at 3:00 A.M. At around 12:45 A.M. I heard what sounded like a huge jetliner coming toward the hotel.  It was a loud unforgettable roar/rumble.  As I was getting up to look out the patio doors (to my left), the hotel began shaking.  Items in the bathroom, and on the counter were falling to the ground, the toilet slammed shut, the bed was rolling away from the wall.  While the earth was shaking, the power went out … it was pitch black”.

I was in bed reading for a while and had just taken off my glasses and set them on the floor beside the bed and shut my eyes.  It hadn’t been more than 10 minutes or so when I heard the rumble, it was like nothing I had heard before, all I can do to describe it is liken it to the loud thunder of an airplane that is really close ….  like right overhead.  I actually thought that a plane could have been ditching into the Atlantic because we were close to the airport and it was THAT LOUD!  That’s why I got up to look out the patio doors.  The shaking went on for a whole 40 seconds!  The floor shook hard as I tried to stand. A surge threw me backward. I was the only one awake before the quake hit.  Everyone else was sleeping.  They eventually woke with all of the ruckus.  I couldn’t work out in my mind what was happening at first, but, eventually I knew we had to get to a doorway.  By that time, the ferocious shaking had stopped and all of the noise and movement was replaced by an eerie silence.

I ran to the door of the room to see what was going on, I opened it … blackness.  Eventually the emergency lighting came on.  I called the front desk, and in my broken Spanish asked “tierra tiembla?” (it’s a good thing French is very similar to Spanish), the front desk clerk’s only response was “si”.

Shaken (because the last thing you expect to be in while you’re on vacation is to be in an earthquake),  we got out of our jammies, locked up our valuables (I have to admit, we did grab the bottle of rum though) and headed toward the front lobby.  Some people stayed in their rooms, but my gut instinct was to go down to get off of the second floor and out of the room because we didn’t know the extent of the damage to the hotel or how big the initial aftershock would be.  Some people were gathered by the “action” pool (not to be confused with the “quiet” pool because there is one)  so we went there, grabbed some chairs and made our way to the lobby exit.

It was a strange atmosphere; everyone crowded there at 1:00 in the morning’ish, nervously chatting and laughing. The 1st aftershock hit at around 1:06 A.M.  The 2nd one, which felt a bit stronger, hit at 1:30 A.M.  We were sitting in our plastic chairs which we borrowed from the pool deck.  They swayed as the earth rumbled, pieces of the clay tile fell from the roof, the awning crumpled and frightened tourists and hotel staff ooooh’ed as the ground moved under our feet.  I have to admit, it’s a really, really, really weird feeling when the earth rumbles below you; all I could imagine was a crack opening up beneath us and being swallowed.

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We weren’t given much information other than most of the Northern Coast was without power.  No one knew the magnitude nor where the epicentre was at this point.   To me being me, these were vital statistics – I’m thinking “I NEED to know where the epicentre is”.  Is it in the mountain range behind me or in front of me in the ocean?  It matters!”  I don’t think anyone other than myself was worried about the possibility of a tsunami!  I don’t know if watching too much NatGeo is a blessing or a curse.

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Poor Cassandra,all of the rocking and rolling made her sick to her stomach.  Meanwhile, Emma proudly shows off a 5 cent peso she found during all of the ruckus!

I decided to make a call back home to Canada and spoke with my best friend, at the time, Miranda.  I told her what had transpired and to look online for information and that I’d call her back, because truthfully, I thought she’d probably get information faster back home than we would there in the DR.

After waiting a while for instructions and as the aftershocks continued throughout the night (although milder),  we were told that we’d have to spend the night outside, because the hotel had to be cleared for re-entry by the military to ensure it was safe for we tourists. So, we gathered up some chaise lounges and some blankets and slept under the stars. That wouldn’t have been half bad save for the 1000’s of mosquitoes and mosquito bites we endured!   The poor kids were covered head to toe in bites!  At around 7:30 A.M. we decided to go back our room and tried to get a bit more rest before starting our 1st full day.

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You’ll note the mountain range in the backdrop of the photo I took

Later that morning, I asked our Air Transat Rep, Freddie, what the scoop was.  He explained that the quake had caused an extensive amount of damage in town to the homes, structures and roads.  He explained that the epicentre was near a mountain range, behind the hotel, about 6 miles south of Puerto Plata.  The mountain range is the biggest mountain system in the DR and connects all of the Caribbean islands, including the lesser Antilles. There are two major fault lines that run through the island – The North Hispaniola Trench and The Septentrional Fault Zone, both of which are active.

The damage to the hotel was minimal; some cracks in the walls, broken roof and floor tiles but otherwise not too much else.  They obviously build them sturdy since they’re ocean front and are susceptible to hurricanes.  The water that day was dark and murky from being churned the night before.

I had asked our Air Transat Rep if he wouldn’t mind getting me a local paper to bring home.

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I asked Freddie how his home made out, not good.  It had all but nearly collapsed and his belongings ruined.  It was much the same for most of the staff at the hotel that we had befriended.  To think that they had ensured all of that just a few hours earlier and still came to work in the morning.

Turns out the earthquake was a strong 6.5 on the Richter Scale and was felt over most of the country and caused significant damage in the cities of Puerto Plata and Santiago.  It was felt as far as Port-au-Prince, Haiti and even Puerto Rico some 220 miles East.  The 1st aftershock we felt measured 4.1 and the 2nd which I said felt stronger, it was, it measured 5.1.

The Richter scale:

Average effect of a 6.0 – 6.9 magnitude earthquake:   Damage to a moderate number of well-built structures in populated areas. Earthquake-resistant structures survive with slight to moderate damage. Poorly designed structures receive moderate to severe damage. Felt in wider areas; up to hundreds of miles/kilometres from the epicentre. Strong to violent shaking in epicentral area.

The first signs of damage that the quake had caused was the first time we left the resort to go horseback riding on the mountain.

Other than the odd aftershock or 20 (actually I just verified online that there were over 200 aftershocks in the days following this quake!), the rest of the week was awesome.  The sun was out, the weather was gorgeous and the water was warm.  The kids had a blast horse back riding, participating in Kids Club, mini disco, swimming in the ocean and making new friends.

Here are the last 2 pages of my scrapbook, (I was big into scrapbooking back then), which documents our departure day.

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Some people have asked me “what does it feel like to be in an earthquake?”.  If you’ve never experienced one, it’s hard to imagine the ground moving, and you moving along with it.  It’s a very unusual sensation that isn’t easy to describe.    

Looking back, now that we are safe obviously, it’s a cool experience that we get to share.  I can also now take in, the extent of the damage that this quake actually caused.

Take in the entry in the graph below “09/22/2003 – Puerto Plata, Santiago, magnitude 6.4, 36 km, deaths 3” – but look at the total damage graph!  The most damage caused by an earthquake to date in the DR.  Also, I note that for some reason it was downgraded to a 6.4 from a 6.5.

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I’ll chop that one up for the books that’s for sure!

Namaste

T xo

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