Chile reels in aftermath of quake, emergency workers provide aid

Weeks after the Feb. 27 earthquake hit Chile, a blackout affected millions of residents Sunday. The country is trying to recover from the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country last month and caused a tsunami that damaged the country's coastal region and put other countries throughout the Pacific on alert. Strong aftershocks hit the country March 5 and again March 11.
By Jonathan Franklin and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

SANTIAGO, CHILE -- After experiencing one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike the earth in more than a century, Chileans accelerated their rescue, aid and security efforts in damaged regions Sunday but also took pride in the comparatively low death toll, a result widely attributed to the country's meticulous planning and preparation.

The Chilean government dispatched troops to keep order in the hard-hit city of Concepcion, and President Michelle Bachelet opened the door to international aid a day after saying that "we generally do not ask for help." Her remarks came after a lengthy meeting with advisers convinced her, she said, that the country faces "a catastrophe of such unthinkable magnitude that it will require a giant effort to recover." Experts said repairs will take years and will probably cost tens of billions of dollars.

While the death toll rose steadily to more than 700, according to a midday estimate, it remained a small fraction of the tally from a far less powerful earthquake last month in Haiti that claimed at least 220,000 lives. That temblor was more shallow and much closer to a large population center, the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. But the deaths there were mostly because of widespread building collapses, which Chilean cities did not experience.

Earthquake scientists, building engineers and political scientists in Chile and the United States agreed that even though half a million homes were heavily damaged during more than 120 seconds of shaking, the fact that so many Chileans survived was a testament to the nation's enactment and enforcement of stringent building codes.

"We would have expected that an 8.8 earthquake would have done a lot more damage," said Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. "The people in Chile have experience with earthquakes that saved hundreds if not thousands of lives."

The earthquake, centered 200 miles southwest of the capital, was one of at least a dozen in Chile since 1973 that were larger than magnitude 7. The quakes release stresses between two tectonic plates that are moving past each other at a rate roughly one-third faster than the plates that define the San Andreas fault in California, according to Jonathan Bray, a professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Unlike in Haiti, people think about earthquakes all the time in Chile. It's in their mind," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "This is a country that can mobilize resources and meet these national challenges."

Chile has relatively low levels of corruption, making enforcement of building codes more credible than in other Latin American countries; its rank on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index is 25, just six spots below the United States, while Haiti's is 168.

Several U.S. disaster relief experts cautioned, however, that the Chilean government should be careful not to become overconfident. While Bachelet said at her news conference Sunday that the country needed field hospitals, water-purification plants, temporary bridges and experts in damage assessment, her plea was not immediately conveyed through official channels to Washington or the International Red Cross.

"We have resources that are positioned to deploy, should the Chilean government ask for our help," President Obama said after speaking with Bachelet on Saturday. But Virginia Staab, the State Department's spokeswoman for Western Hemisphere affairs, said late Sunday that while the United States has placed some search-and-rescue teams, field hospitals and medics on alert, "there have been no official requests right now." The only U.S. aid provided so far, she said, was small amounts of water and food, as well as satellite communications and imagery of areas that have not yet been reached by rescue personnel.

Speaking of Bachelet's statement, Staab said, "If she is looking for all of those [items] from us, we will likely provide them." She added that Washington was hoping for some "clarity" by Monday morning on Chile's request.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long planned to spend this week in Latin America, will arrive in Santiago on Tuesday morning, officials said. Once there, she intends to reiterate the administration's willingness to assist.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company