A big boom woke Lauren Lipsey in the middle of the night. The walls of her Santiago, Chile, apartment shook amid cracking and snapping sounds as her bed moved sideways. She jumped up and braced herself with arms spread wide in a doorway.

"I literally had to hold myself up," Lipsey said.

It was the beginning of nearly two minutes of terror during one of the biggest earthquakes in modern history, on Feb. 27.

"I had this apocalyptic feeling that the building was just going to take a breath and fall. I literally thought that I was helpless in this situation. I was so frantic," Lipsey said.

After a minute passed, the quake showed no signs of weakening. "It only kept getting stronger," she said.

Lipsey and her husband, Jason Tibbits, fled down six flights of stairs. The quake continued to rock the building, making it difficult for them to keep their balance.

"We were trying to run down the stairs but the building was shaking us back and forth," Lipsey said.

Once outside, she saw that the quake had dumped a torrent of water onto the street from a pool on the 20th floor of their building.

Although shell-shocked, Lipsey was one of the lucky ones because the magnitude 8.8 quake left more than 350 people dead. Thousands were left homeless, and the quake caused more than $30 billion in damage, The Santiago Times reported.

In comparison, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12 in Haiti killed an estimated 230,000 people. Experts said differing construction standards in the two countries played a significant role in the drastically different death tolls. Unlike Chile, Haiti is a Third World country, they said.

Charleston-based Water Missions International has been heavily involved in the ongoing Haiti relief effort, where more than a million residents still are displaced.

"You have a First World culture (Chile) versus a totally underdeveloped country. Chile knows that they are on a fault line. They have built to withstand earthquakes," said Jerry Miner, Water Missions vice-president of disaster relief.

Timothy Mays, an assistant professor of civil and electrical engineering at The Citadel, said new commercial buildings in Charleston are designed to withstand a magnitude 7.3 earthquake. That means the buildings will be damaged but won't collapse, he said.

The area's most damaging earthquake on record hit in 1886, killing 60 people and flattening buildings. No one knows exactly the strength of the Charleston quake, but it is thought to have been larger than magnitude 6.0 and maybe as much as 7.4 magnitude, Mays said.

"That earthquake is a major factor in determining what we think we should design for new buildings," he said. The local quake standards apply to new commercial buildings but a different set of less-stringent rules apply to new homes, he said.

The S.C. Emergency Management Division estimates that if a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the region today, nearly 70,000 homes throughout the Southeast would be affected and the Charleston area would suffer financial damage of $10.9 billion.

Lipsey, 25, a Folly Beach resident, returned home recently to look for work. Tibbits stayed in Santiago because he has a teaching contract through June.

Lipsey credited the Chilean government's building codes with saving their lives.

"There's no way a building should be able to sustain the shaking that I saw. There's no way. It was incredible. It's because their building codes are so strict," she said.

Earthquake preparation

1. Make sure each member of your family knows what to do no matter where they are when earthquakes occur. Establish a meeting place where you can all reunite afterward.

2. Find out about earthquake plans developed by your children's school or day care.

3. Remember that transportation might be disrupted. Keep some emergency supplies such as food, liquids and comfortable shoes at work.

4. Know where your gas, electric and water main shutoffs are and how to turn them off in the event there is a leak or electrical short.

5. Locate your nearest fire and police stations and emergency medical facility.

6. Take a Red Cross first-aid and CPR training course.

For more information go to: www.usgs.gov

Reach Prentiss Findlay at pfindlay@postandcourier.com or 937-5711.