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Almost three months have passed since Chile’s record-setting earthquake; 8.8 on the Richter scale, more than 2 and a half minutes of agonizing length, and followed within the next couple of hours by several horrific tsunamis. On that February 27, 2010, the world stopped for most of Chile, phones did not work, electricity was completely cut off, drinking water was cut off for millions, and chaos reigned in several of the most affected centers in Bio Bio and Maule, especially Concepcion, Talcahuano, Talca, Curico, Cauquenes, and Constitucion. Since then there has been much suffering and acrimonious finger-pointing and blame-placing for shortcomings in the initial response and subsequent planning for reconstruction. But there have also been amazing acts of courage, solidarity, and recovery.

To put this earthquake somewhat into context, it is interesting to note that the largest earthquake on record in the United States was a 9.2 quake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 28, 1964. The largest quake on record in the world was a 9.5 quake in Chile, on May 22, 1960. Scientists claim the recent 8.8 Chilean quake was so strong it moved the earth on its axis 3 inches, and shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds. Both numbers are so small they are hard to fathom, but the idea of these “adjustments” is disconcerting, to say the least. There are 500,000 detectable earthquakes annually, of which 10,000 can be felt and 100 cause damage. In the 3 months following The February 27th quake in Chile, over 200 earthquakes were felt, many of which were over 6.0 and several over 7.0, the strongest of which were the 3 aftershocks on March 11, precisely during the inauguration ceremonies of President Sebastian Pinera. Since then the headlines in Chile’s leading newspaper reveal the reality Chileans are living: April 4, “Medium-sized earthquake awakes Tarapaca Region”; April 5, “5.5 quake in northern zone of the country”; April 10, “5.5 quake in the Fifth Region”; April 16 “In less than one hour, three earthquakes grade 5.0 shake the Seventh Region”; April 17, “Quake awakens the central zone”; April 23, “Small tremor in Tacna”; April 23, “5.6 earthquake southeast of Easter Island”; April 24, “Small quake shakes Valparaiso, Santiago, and O’Higgins Region”; May 5, “Strong quake alarms the area of the Chile/Peru border”; May 9, “Small quake in O’Higgins Region”; and May 18, “ Quake of 4.8 intensity shakes Maule Region”. Some were aftershocks related to the February 27 quake, but many were unrelated events.

Another way to understand what happened in Chile on February 27, is to compare it to the Haiti earthquake that occurred just prior to the Chilean quake; Haiti was 7.0, Chile 8.8 in intensity or 500 time stronger. In Haiti, there were over 200,000 deaths, in Chile, less than 500. In Haiti 280,000 buildings were destroyed, in Chile 500,000. In Haiti the President of the country made his first public statement 168 hours after the quake, in Chile she made a statement 2 hours after. In Haiti the government accepted foreign assistance immediately, in Chile only after 48 hours, when the authorities had a rough but better idea of what was needed form the international community. The Haiti situation is still on the front pages of the print media, while the Chile quake is no longer “news”.

Much damage was caused by the tsunamis that followed the quake (some details of this damage were described in earlier postings on this blog). A tsunami is distinct from a tidal wave. A Tsunami is a sea wave caused by an underwater earthquake or landslide usually caused by an earthquake, whereas a tidal wave is a shallow water wave caused by gravitational interactions between the sun, moon and earth. Chile’s was definitely a tsunami. Another dimension to this earthquake was the damage caused by resultant “seiches”. A “seiche” is the violent waving action a body of liquid within a container, such as a swimming pool, toilet bowl, or wine vat, such that most of the liquid is splashed out of the container or in worse cases, the container collapses or is tipped over. The many reported cases of swimming pools and toilet bowls emptying out in the Chilean earthquake are interesting, but the damage to many wine vats caused by this “seiche” action is more serious. However, coming right before the wine grape harvest, many vats were empty awaiting the new production.

As communications came back on stream, and as the days and weeks passed, the breadth and depth of the damage became depressingly clear. A month after the quake, the main media were reporting 345 deaths, 95 missing, 256,000 homes seriously damages of which about a third were totally destroyed leaving 800,000 homeless, 35 hospitals totally or seriously damaged, 2,750 schools destroyed, 600,000 school children unable to start the school year in their schools, and a total of US$ 30 billion estimated losses, public and private. This represents 17% of Chile’s GDP.

Two months after the quake, the death toll had reached almost 500, with very few still missing. 25% of these were deaths from the Tsunami. Officials now report two million people were affected, and destruction to 370,000 homes, 73 hospitals, and 4,012 schools (half the schools in the affected area).

The main north-south artery, the Pan-American highway, along which flows most of Chile’s transport and public transit, and upon which much of Chile’s agro-exports depend to reach the ports of San Antonio, Talcahuano, and Valparaiso (also severely destroyed) suffered damage to overpasses and road surface in 300 places. This severely restricted the movement of people and goods, although a certain level of normalcy was reached soon in the flow of cars, busses and trucks the entire length of Chile. Chilean fruit exports are now flowing almost normally, although there are significant port upgrades and investments still required.

On May 21, President Pinera reported to the nation a comprehensive set of initiatives for his first year, including several references to earthquake recovery. He reported that their target date for having all school children back in school (April 25) was met under the guidance of the Minister of Education, Joaquin Lavin. This is a notable accomplishment given that over 4,000 schools had been damaged in the earthquake. A reconstruction fund has been set up with US$8.4 billion for housing, schools, bridges, hospitals, and public infrastructure. The goal they set previously to have 45,000 emergency housing units delivered to homeless victims by May 21 was met and surpassed by 5,000 units on that date. Many more units, and quality upgrades for electricity, water, heat and sewage disposal are required, and planned.

There are serious concerns and complicated debates between the Chilean Congress and the Pinera administration (essentially between the governing and the opposition coalitions), about how the reconstruction efforts will be funded, and how and when to move from reconstruction to the regular development agenda (education, health and pension reform, energy policy, citizen security, and employment creation….sound familiar?). Authorities are confronting the health threats during the winter months especially for the vulnerable population living precariously in the affected area, with programs like massive vaccination campaigns. And they are funding initiatives designed to reactivate the most affected economic activities (artisan fishing, forestry and wood processing, irrigation-based agriculture, and the small business sector).

Overlaying all this is the series of ongoing reviews of the disaster early-warning system, the response capacity of the national disaster relief agency (ONEMI), the role of the military in citizen protection during times of emergencies like earthquakes, and others. Chile needs top to bottom revision of institutional structures dealing with preparedness, siting (zoning) and construction standards of homes, apartment buildings, businesses, port facilities, and tourist centers, and many others, all of which will take time, money, leadership, and persistence, especially when memories of the February 27 quake begin to fade, and they will.

Written in McLean, Virginia, on May 22, 2010.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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  1. psbelanga2 says:

    The Government of Chile seems to have done a lot better job in coping with this disaster than the Federal, State, and local authorities in the U.S. in dealing with the aftermath of Katrina in Louisiana.Were there, perhaps, a lot of lessons learned and remedies put into effect in Chile from the 9.5 earthquake the country had in May, 1960? There must have been incredible damage done, and I don’t recall ever hearing about it until the most recent big one.
    Paul Belanga

  2. Dave says:

    Actually, there are many parallels between Katrina and Chile’s earthquake, especially related to deficient early warning and immediate response, but also in the challenges both the US and Chile face(d)in planning, funding, and implementing the reconstruction, a long term project relying heavily on both public and private investment, as well as institutional reform. It’s interesting that Chile’s new President, on his way to Washington for the recent energy summit hosted by President Obama, stopped for a day in New Orleans to understand better that reconstruction effort. It has also been reported that Chile is entering into a collaboration agreement with the California disaster preparedness office.

  3. epita says:

    As always, excellent and instructional reporting. There is still so much more to learn regarding preparedness for the unexpected (or not) natural and man-made disasters that may impact our world. Thanks, David, for a very comprehensive report.

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