Costa Rica Escapes Major Damage After Most Severe Earthquake in Two Decades

The Wednesday quake proved the sturdiness of the Latin American nation's structural codes

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EZEQUIEL BECERRA / AFP / Getty Images

Damage caused by a 7.6 earthquake in Puntarenas, 90 km northwest of San Jose, Costa Rica.

News alerts went out with force when the 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit Costa Rica Wednesday. Relatives clamored to check on their Costa Rican family members, and reporters scrambled to size up the damage. But for such a strong temblor, the Latin American nation emerged relatively unscathed. It caused only one death, of a heart attack spurred by fright.

The quake’s epicenter originated about 38 miles from the town of Liberia in western Costa Rica, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The country’s capital of San Jose lies just 87 miles southeast of the spot. It was Costa Rica’s most severe earthquake in over two decades, though the damage was relatively contained with just a few blocked highways and collapsed houses.

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According to the Red Cross, only one fatality was recorded: a man suffered a heart attack during the quake. At least 20 people were injured, while about 203 people have been temporarily placed in emergency shelters. But as the ground shook, fear rippled through the nation. “I was inside my car at a stop sign and all of a sudden everything started shaking. I thought the street was going to break in two,” Erich Johanning, a San Jose resident, told NBC. “Immediately, I saw dozens of people running out of their homes and office buildings.”

The quake was reported to have been felt as far away as Panama and Nicaragua. The quake’s depth of more than 25 miles below the surface helped dissipate the seismic waves, spreading the shaking farther, but reducing localized damage. “If it was a shallower event, it would be a significantly higher hazard,” seismologist Daniel McNamara of the U.S. Geological Survey told the Associated Press. Though it briefly raised concerns of a tsunami warning, worries — and alerts — were quickly dismissed.

The Pacific coast along Central America is part of a region that is known for its seismic activity. Costa Rica’s structural codes have been updated to international standards at least three times since 1974, which surely helped minimize any damage. The codes had also been updated just last year. The nation was struck by a 7.6-magnitude quake in 1991 that killed 47 people, though that one was centered in the lesser-developed eastern region of the nation. Engineers attributed the lack of damage or deaths on Wednesday to the strong state of infrastructure in Costa Rica.

“We have a culture of concrete and steel. Years ago we abandoned building in mud and adobe, something that’s caused a lot of problems and that they’re continuing in other countries,” Olman Vargas, president of the national College of Architecture and Engineering, assured the Associated Press. “I can assure you we comply with all global standards — the same as in California and Japan, places well-known for their high tectonic activity.”

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Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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