Rising from the Waves

Rising from the Waves

By Dialogo
July 02, 2013

The earth had just stopped shaking in the early morning hours of February 27, 2010, when Captain Rodrigo Lledó joined other members of the Talcahuano Naval Base’s leadership in the commandant’s office. The lights were out, as in much of Chile. Telephone communication was cut off.

In a building perched on a hillside over the bay, the officers worked to assess damage from the massive magnitude-8.8 earthquake and to ensure that ships in port immediately set sail. By 5:50 a.m., two hours had passed since the earthquake, and the officers began to believe they were safe from the threat of a tsunami. That’s when Capt. Lledó heard a very loud metallic noise while assessing base renovations from a hilltop that overlooks the bay and naval installations. “The vessels collided with each other. It was a very strong and strange noise, something you do not normally hear,” he told Diálogo.

What Capt. Lledó heard was the sound of 300 shipping containers from across the bay being lifted by the waves and hurled in every direction. Waves of varying sizes rolled in from every direction, swamping parts of the base in up to 9 feet of water and pushing vessels onto land while ripping others from their berths, dragging vehicles and equipment to the bottom of the bay.

More than 500 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami along the length of Chile’s coast. Incredibly, no lives were lost at the Talcahuano Naval Base, though some Sailors were forced to swim for their lives.

One officer was driving on the base when the tsunami hit. In the dark of night, his headlights showed a wave approaching from the front. He quickly threw his vehicle into reverse, but saw another wave coming from behind. The water lifted his truck and washed him off the road. He lowered his windows to try to escape, and his car filled with water and slammed into a tree. Miraculously, he escaped by swimming and climbing to higher ground.

The base’s infrastructure was devastated. The undulating seafloor at the epicenter, 94 miles from the coast, caused 7-foot waves in Talcahuano. A 60-foot-by-360-foot dry dock filled with water, lifting a merchant vessel under repair out of the dock and onto the roof of a repair facility. A $62 million scientific research vessel that was due for christening by then-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet later that day was pulled from its dock, slammed around with a helpless crew aboard and luckily grounded on a soft sandbank, sparing its sensitive equipment from damage.

While many combat and civilian fishing vessels set sail immediately after the earthquake for the safety of open waters, some, like those in repair, were unable to. Ultimately, the Navy did not lose any vessels. Several floating docks were damaged, with one sunk and deemed irreparable. In the city of Talcahuano, 3,000 homes were destroyed and 103 Sailors’ quarters on the base were lost. In all, Capt. Lledó, who returned from retirement to serve as chief of the team overseeing the base renovations, estimated there was $300 million in damage. Captain Harold Kauer, general manager of Chile’s public-private shipbuilding and ship repair company, ASMAR, estimated an additional $350 million in losses to the shipyard.

A New Base

With Talcahuano effectively destroyed, the most important naval base and shipyard in the country was inoperable. The 4,626-acre Talcahuano Naval Base and its 7,000 Sailors are strategically located 500 kilometers south of Santiago, maintaining a key defensive position in the South Pacific.

The base includes the headquarters of the submarine force, arsenals, training camps for marines, a hospital and Sailor housing, schools and a ship for scientific investigation. The ASMAR shipyard included two dry docks, five floating docks, several repair shops and a storage warehouse.

“There was an important commitment by the government to recover and rebuild all the areas and dependencies that suffered the worst damage,” said Lucia Dammert, a security and defense expert who teaches at the University of Santiago. “Within the geographic regional strategy, there was also an important investment to improve what was there before and make it operational again very quickly.”

The Chilean government decided not just to rebuild, but to upgrade Talcahuano. Within three days, once the city of Talcahuano was secured, hundreds of naval cadets and community volunteers, working in three- to four-week rotations, began to clean and rebuild the community. Simultaneously, rotations of Sailors worked on the base to bring it back to operational condition.

Capt. Lledó and his team, working closely with the commander of the Navy and the government, developed a three-phase plan to rebuild and upgrade the base. The Chilean Congress approved $212 million to supplement an undisclosed sum recovered for insured facilities and equipment. The Navy committed to a goal of bringing the base back to operational capacity in 18 months. The ASMAR facilities were operational in an astonishing four months — by July 1, 2010. By February 2013, the rebuilding plan was in its second phase, with 62 percent of repairs and improvements complete and $152 million spent.

“We designed a new naval base,” Capt. Lledó said. The base upgrade has thus far included more than 2,100 feet of piers installed with earthquake-resistant pilings. All nonessential facilities were relocated to higher ground, including schools, homes and offices. Since 600 computers were lost in the tsunami, sensitive equipment in seaside buildings, including new power generation plants, was raised above flood levels. ASMAR is also expanding its ship-repair capacity by dredging the bay to a depth of 24 feet to accommodate more and larger ships.

“For us, at first it was a disaster,” said Capt. Kauer, as he sat at his desk below a portrait of Chilean naval hero Arturo Prat. “Today, we have realized that it was a tremendous opportunity, and we are taking advantage to re-engineer shipbuilding, logistics, human resources and obviously, with a new commercial endeavor.”

For Capt. Lledó, the son of a sailor and a lifelong submariner who spent 25 years at Talcahuano, coming out of retirement to rebuild the base has special meaning. “This, for me, is also a nice life goal, to be able to finish my naval work rebuilding the place where I have always lived and worked.”