In earthquake-ready Costa Rica, quake size rattles

The powerful quake surprised locals and foreign retirees alike. Damage appears to be limited, although two related fatalities have been reported.

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
People gather in front of the Supreme Court, after being evacuated from their buildings following a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in San Jose, Wednesday.

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake that shook Costa Rica today was one of the strongest to hit in years, and though initial death tolls are low, it unnerved the earthquake-prone country, nonetheless.

“Costa Ricans are familiar with earthquakes. We know what to do, how to evacuate and where to go to safe spaces.  But this one was especially bad,” says Heillen Sanchez, the communications manager for World Vision based in San Jose, Costa Rica, in an e-mail. “It seemed very strong and lasted very long. The longer it lasted, the more I was worried it … could mean bad damage for some of the other areas of the country.”

Two people are reported dead – one from a heart attack and another from trauma – and at least 20 were injured, according to the Red Cross.

Despite what appears to be limited damage, the powerful quake has also rattled tourists and foreigners who have relocated to the country. The epicenter of this quake, along the northwestern coast, was about 50 miles south of the town of Liberia, an area popular among tourists. (It is also home to many Costa Ricans struggling to make ends meet, who Ms. Sanchez says are the most vulnerable.)

About 500,000 American tourists travel to Costa Rica each year, according to the US State Department, adding to the tens of thousands of retirees who have relocated there. Choosing to live, work, and retire abroad always entails weighing pros and cons. But the stakes are higher when violence flares or Mother Nature strikes in the form of hurricanes or earthquakes.

Most expatriates choose to stay put despite natural disasters, even if nerves are frayed, as will likely be the case in Costa Rica.

Katherine Stanley Obando, an American living in the capital, San Jose, says that when she first moved to the country eight years ago, earthquakes were a curiosity. But this is the largest temblor she has ever felt. In a way, however, it has made her feel more secure, she says.

“The quality of building … is something they really take into account and in fact, it is a little early to say, but [today's quake] reassures me a little bit because it was quite strong, and it seems like even where it was strongest, there was fairly limited damage,” Ms. Stanley Obando says.

“It makes me feel a little more confident.”

The situation closer to the epicenter is still hard to gauge.

Sanchez says that World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian organization, is monitoring the situation. “We’re still waiting on reports to come in from our staff near the epicenter. I’m afraid that there may be some damage out there. I am really worried about people [there],” she says.

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