Postquake: Unease, and Wedding Bells, In Chile

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Moises Avila / AFP / Getty Images

Cars drive past the Church of Divine Providence in downtown Santiago, Chile, which was heavily damaged by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake

It is a bright, summery Saturday morning in Santiago, and at the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, the groom is becoming nervous. Less than 12 hours beforehand, the strongest earthquake to hit Chile in a generation rocked the capital, and all morning, local radio stations have carried news that although the city's modern structures emerged largely unscathed from the tremor, Santiago's sacred spaces did not fare as well. A few blocks away, the bell tower at Divina Providencia, a community church, had collapsed. But in the Plaza de Armas, the 18th century Catedral Metropolitana has held up much better. A few fresh pockmarks left a dandruff-like ring of debris around the base, but after what seemed like hours, the police deemed the structure safe. The groom ducked inside as a limousine pulled up, and the bride moved like a brilliant white swan through the square. Her father waited in front of the police tape that lay crumpled near the entrance. He took her hand. Together, they stepped over the confetti of police tape and rubble and walked down the aisle.

On Feb. 27, this bruised and shaken city took its first nervous steps toward reclaiming normality. While pockets of this country of 16 million lie in ruins — the country's President, Michelle Bachelet, declared several sections of central Chile "zones of catastrophe" — Santiago has had few injuries or deaths. But although the physical damage is minimal, there's a sense of unease that lingers below the city's shining surface. The wedding ceremony went ahead as scheduled at Catedral Metropolitana, but the congregation was, a participant guessed, perhaps one-fifth the number of those originally invited; the rest preferred to stay home. Meanwhile, families gathered nearby in parks, but not for leisure — many were simply too scared to remain indoors.

While its increasingly affluent residents may wish to believe they have destiny in their grasp, Santiago — the economic jewel of South America — is perched on a stretch of earth that violently resists all efforts to tame it. Situated along the ring of fire, a hotbed of seismic activity that encircles the Pacific, the plates Chile sits on top of regularly unleash earthquakes of extremely high magnitude — more than a dozen major earthquakes since 1973. Richter can assign them a number, but it is difficult to describe how feverish and angry the earth feels here. The aftershocks this weekend have come fast and hard. Periodically, the ground shrugs and heaves like the back of some restless beast, sending pedestrians suddenly staggering around like drunks or rabid dogs. Thin skyscrapers sway like metronomes. Scientists reported more than 50 aftershocks on Saturday alone.

Normalcy cannot return as long as Santiago, and indeed all of Chile, remains essentially sealed off. The airport is closed, major roads are impassable, and even the country's main ports have sustained significant damage. Many gas stations in Santiago are out of petrol, and several stores visited by TIME had empty shelves. The President took to the airwaves to appeal for calm, and in Santiago at least, the population seems to be following her advice. But no society is without tensions, and in the barrio of Maipú, on the western edge of Santiago, the city's underclass was feeling much more agitated. As Peter Murphy Lewis, a lecturer in political science at the University of Chile (and my translator in Maipú) put it, "Living through a big earthquake in Santiago makes you realize that Chile is a first-world country — for the rich."

Maipú is heavily populated with Peruvian and Bolivian immigrant workers, many of whom arrived in Chile illegally to take advantage of the country's strong economy and low unemployment, which is around 8%. A tour of the neighborhood suggested that the damage to stores in this area was decidedly more pronounced than in wealthier areas. And the difference was not lost on the residents. Outside one apartment block, a group of residents gathered for a meeting. The ceiling of their building had crumpled in the quake, and the apartment dwellers were sure it was due to shoddy workmanship on the part of the constructor; they were furious with the government for granting the building a permit. Violence, one felt here, was not far away.

"Chileans are, in general, pragmatic and easygoing," Lewis said. "But crises and catastrophes expose and magnify problems."

In an interview with TIME, Paul Simons, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, said the U.S. stands ready to offer any aid to Chile to help it meet all the needs of its citizens. But, Simons pointed out, Chile is a leader in emergency response and emergency management — the country was one of the first to send help to Haiti. "It may be they don't need our help," he said.

Back at the Plaza de Armas, oil painter Juan Jouregue had the whole square to himself — he usually shares it with about 30 other artists — as he put the finishing touches on a depiction of a seaside idyll he created in an effort to "cheer people up with my art," he said. "We are still a beautiful country, a beautiful people. We must not forget that."