The powerful 8.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Chile Wednesday night has fortunately not caused as much damage as was initially feared, but the country’s frequent tremors may be threatening its potential to become the Silicon Valley of South America. In a country where foreign workers are a common sight, the fear of quakes has gripped many people.
“I would rather live in a country where you can predict when a disaster will likely strike you,” said Manuel Alejandro Gil, a software developer working for Appizard in the the Chile IT sector in Santiago.
Gil says what happened Wednesday night was scary. “Some people might say it is silly to leave a country for some imaginary earthquake,” he said. “They say Chile is prepared for it. Yes, I can understand their point. But living in the shadow of fear is a challenge.”
A graduate from University of Camaguey in Cuba, Gil has only been working in the Chile IT world for the past six months. He says he already lived through three earthquakes, and his office is on eighth floor of a high-rise building in Santiago.
“It felt like a truck was rumbling through the street in front of our house,” said Gil. “Everybody came out to know what was happening. And there were aftershocks all through the night.”
This was a huge change from Thursday morning, when everything appeared normal and people were going about their business as usual. Chile is a quake-prone country and buildings here are built to withstand tremors. But more than 500 people were killed by the historic 8.8-magnitude earthquake — the fifth-largest ever recorded — that struck the country in 2010.
More than an earthquake itself, what worries many Chileans is the resulting tsunami, which was the major cause of death and destruction in 2010. “I don’t think the quake will affect Chile’s IT fortunes,” says Sumeet Sangar, Country Manager for Evalueserve in Chile.
A native of Punjab, India, Sangar has lived in Chile since the past eight years. “We have about 350 people working in our company,” he said. “Nobody is complaining that he is worried over quake. Even in 2010, when a massive earthquake struck, we worked as usual.”
Since the earthquake on Wednesday night, there have been a series of aftershocks and nearly one million people have been evacuated from coastal towns and cities near the original epicenter, which struck off the coast about halfway in between the capital and the popular beach destination La Serena. “It literally looks completely normal in Santiago, as if nothing happened at all,”Jacki Torres, CEO of Global Connex. “Not one thing fell or broke in my house.”
Although the quake has not caused much damage, especially in Santiago, the fact that Chile is prone to tremors is what worries foreign workers. Sangar admitted that over the past years he saw at least two or three foreign workers leaving the country for the fear of earthquake.
Mild tremors sometime cause power outage, but the country’s telecom infrastructure is believed to be quite strong. Since 2010 earthquake, the Chilean government has spent millions upgrading the country’s seismic network of sensors, and made improvements to telecommunications systems that share critical information and warnings.
More than anything, Chile has now proved that it can prevent damage even from massive earthquakes. This speaks to the nation’s best-in-region preparations and well-observed building codes. The quake that hit the country Wednesday, for example, was more massive than the one hit Nepal recently. The difference between the devastation in each country has been stark. “National calamities can happen anywhere,” said Sangar. “Here we have robust infrastructure and political stability.”
Evalueserve is one of about a dozen foreign IT outsourcing firms operating Chile. According to the World Bank, Chile is one of the Latin American countries with a huge potential for exporting ICT services. Today, IT services account for 21 percent of the country’s ICT service exportation.