By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times
TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – The powerful 7.6-magnitude earthquake that shook Costa Rica Wednesday morning caused panic, property destruction and collapsed buildings in areas surrounding the quake’s epicenter in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Preliminary reports by the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (Ovsicori) said the 8:42 a.m. quake was centered in the Nicoya Peninsula, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the provincial capital of Liberia.
In the Pacific coast beach town of Tamarindo, residents awoke to chaos as furniture shook violently and glass shattered from the shelves for what many say lasted up to 30 seconds.
“It was crazy how long it lasted. We heard a gust of wind and then everything started shaking,” said Chelsea Lisaius, who runs a local schooling program.
“We all ran outside and I just grabbed our youngest student [a 9-year-old] and pushed her against the wall until it was over. It was pretty terrifying, but we’re grateful we survived and the students are safe.”
No injuries were reported in Tamarindo and surrounding communities, but the Red Cross reported one person died in Costa Rica from a heart attack, and at least 20 were injured. Two people remain missing. The Red Cross retracted earlier statements that a second man had died at a construction site.
“We cannot confirm any deaths caused by trauma. [The Red Cross] only provided assistance to OBGYN patients and people suffering anxiety and high blood pressure,” Red Cross spokesman Freddy Roman said.
After the shaking stopped, panic ensued across the region. In Tamarindo, more than 200 residents and visiting tourists did the only thing they could think of: seek higher ground and gather at the top of the town’s main hill.
“Everyone I knew was there,” said Jon Phillips, a U.S. expat who owns a restaurant and bar in Tamarindo. “We didn’t have Internet or power, but people were saying there was a tsunami warning so everyone went to the lookout point.”
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a preliminary tsunami warning for Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, but it was quickly canceled – a stroke of luck for a crowd of surfers in the water when the quake hit.
Paola Sánchez, 31, who is originally from San José, was out for a morning surf on Tamarindo Beach when she heard a deep rumble emanating from the ocean floor.
“It was so intense; it was a new sensation I’ve never felt before in my life,” she said. “I knew something was wrong.”
After being thrown violently in the waves and feeling as though she would be “swallowed by a hole in the sand,” Sánchez and other surfers were confused, but got out of the water without any major problems.
Had the quake been shallower, the outcome for Sánchez could have been much worse. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the event was fairly deep at 40 kilometers (25 miles) below the earth’s surface.
Besides causing widespread fear, the quake also took a toll on local businesses. Many of the tourist town’s restaurants and bars reported minor structural damage and thousands of dollars lost in expensive liquor bottles shattered on the floor.
“We won’t know how much we lost for a few days, but it looked pretty bad,” Phillips said of his third-floor location. “All the bottles had fallen; there was lots of broken glass and some damage to electronics from falling ceiling tiles.”
Still, no one is crying over spilled liquor – damage was minor compared to devastation being reported closer to the quake’s epicenter. In the Samara district, towns were temporarily evacuated. In the town of Hojancha, a few miles from the epicenter, city officials said the quake knocked down some houses and landslides blocked several roads.
“We know the damage is much worse in some places,” Phillips added. “Everything here can be replaced. We’re just thankful everyone is safe and wishing the best for everyone else out there.”
In the hours following the quake, several aftershocks were felt in town – Ovsicori reported more than 60 aftershocks between magnitudes 2 and 4 occurred as the day went on. As of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Tamarindo appears to be out of any immediate danger, but locals are still feeling on edge with unconfirmed rumors of more powerful earthquakes and tsunamis circulating.
“You can’t predict these things,” said Sasha Karaliova, 27, who lives and works in Tamarindo. “You never think things like this are going to happen, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and natural disasters, you never think it will happen to you.”
Karaliova said the only thing to do was wait and make sure friends and family are safe in the aftermath. But while some people left town to head inland, Karaliova is staying close to home.
Weather reports for Wednesday night and Thursday indicate storms, but there are no current tsunami warnings in effect, although officials have advised of the possibility of strong aftershocks in the next couple of weeks.