Like everyone else in Chile who was jolted out of bed the morning of Feb. 27, Billy DeSisto and his family woke up to an 8.8-magnitude earthquake, one of the strongest ever registered.
Having grown up in Maine, however, the 15-year-old DeSisto had little idea of what was happening.
“The feeling of the house shaking around us is something new to us, since Maine does not see earthquakes of this magnitude,” DeSisto wrote this week in an e-mail from Chile.
The worst was yet to come, however.
The Orono resident and his family are coping with life in the stricken country. The family’s concerns include finding clean drinking water and nonperishable food and remaining safe because crime has risen in the wake of the natural disaster.
The DeSistos have been living in a suburb of Concepcion, which is located near the epicenter of the earthquake, since January when father William DeSisto, a University of Maine professor, began a six-month sabbatical.
Billy DeSisto, a ninth-grade student at Orono High School, has been e-mailing his teachers and the Bangor Daily News, and his statements below have been culled from several messages.
William DeSisto is an associate professor of chemical engineering at UMaine. Billy DeSisto said his dad’s work in Chile is in biomass conversion to fuels and chemicals through Unidad de Desarollo Tecnologico, a technology center with ties to the University of Concepcion.
Billy DeSisto wrote he had been home-schooled this winter, which is summertime in Chile, but was getting ready to go to a school there this month. However, he doesn’t think the school will be open for at least a month because of the collapse of several major bridges in the area. Instead, DeSisto’s days are spent assisting his family, meeting with locals about the situation or writing, which he called “a passion of mine.”
The DeSisto family — mother Jennifer, sister Isabella, 13, and brothers Nathan and Jason, 11 and 6 — lives in a compound of cabins surrounding a lake. The area is without running water, so the proximity to some kind of water source is important.
“Any water we drink is boiled and comes from natural sources, in our case, a lake,” he wrote. “We gather water and carry it up the hill to our house for drinking, cooking, laundry and flushing toilets.”
The DeSisto family has taken in other U.S. citizens who were living in a high-rise building when the quake hit. The families have since gone back to the high-rise to salvage nonperishable food, and military meals have also helped keep everyone fed.
The scarcity of water has resulted in displaced people trespassing on private land looking for any water source they can get. Leftover supplies go to guards who have been watching the compound’s gate around the clock.
The Chilean military has been deployed and there is a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., which has stemmed some of the violence. But damage has already been done.
“Most of the people I have spoken with believe that looters have done more damage than the earthquake itself,” DeSisto wrote. “No stores or gas stations are open, all having been broken into. Pharmacies in particular have been wiped clean. The most important thing people can do is stay calm. People who get paranoid end up stealing things and destroying buildings, even when it is entirely irrational.”
Another concern is flooding in impoverished coastal areas, he wrote. Several towns were wiped away in the tsunami after the earthquake. There were worries of an outbreak of dengue fever, an infectious disease carried by mosquitoes and found in subtropical areas.
Some buildings held up well, DeSisto wrote, especially compared to the destruction caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti, but others have been damaged.
Back at Orono High School, DeSisto’s presence in Chile has been a topic of conversation this week among some of his classmates, said Shana Goodall, who taught DeSisto last semester in her world civilization and geography class. She’s sure DeSisto will use the earthquake as a learning experience.
“I think Billy was certainly getting a wonderful educational experience, just being in Chile with the exposure to the culture,” said Goodall, who received an e-mail from DeSisto earlier this week. “But with his sense of social justice and compassion for others, I’m sure this has just opened his eyes to a whole other level of experience.”
DeSisto expressed that sentiment in one of his e-mails.
“My family and I are comforted by the presence of friends and others to share the difficulties, which help us to appreciate how fortunate we really are,” he wrote. “Even in the aftermath of an 8.8 earthquake, the usual kindness and helpfulness of Chileans remains evident.”