Chile Death Toll Continues to Climb


SANTIAGO, Mar 1, 2010 (IPS) - While the number of victims of the severe earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile early Saturday has climbed to 723, government officials and experts admit that the catastrophe has highlighted institutional shortcomings and blunders.

The government of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet called the army onto the streets to help the police curb looting in the city of Concepcion, an industrial hub.

Coastal localities in the central regions of El Maule and Bío-Bío, which were hit hardest, were struck by tsunamis triggered by the quake that measured 8.8 on the Richter scale at 3.34 AM local time on Saturday, with an epicentre 90 km north of Concepción, the second-largest city in this South American country of 17 million people.

Toppled houses and buildings, collapsed bridges, blocked roads, damaged hospitals and churches, people calling for water and food, entire families sleeping on the streets for fear of aftershocks and looting in supermarkets are the images broadcast around the world over the last two days after the quake that lasted more than two minutes.

In response to the widespread looting, the government declared a state of emergency Sunday in the regions of El Maule and Bío-Bío, situated between 200 and 500 km south of the capital, to ensure public order and supply the local population with food handed out from supermarkets.

A 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM curfew was also declared Sunday night in Concepción and several towns, and 55 people were arrested for looting. The measure may be extended.

Defense Minister Francisco Vidal announced that some 10,000 troops were deployed to the disaster areas.

The search for an undetermined number of missing people continues, while many areas in southern Chile remain cut off, without running water, electricity or telephone services.

Those who have Internet access are desperately trying to find family members and friends through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and solidarity groups have formed to help them in that task.

Although the government says it immediately put rescue and aid operations into effect, the affected populations and some local authorities have complained that assistance has been slow to arrive.

There is also criticism of the lack of information in the affected areas with respect to the location of aid distribution points or the identities of victims.

Field hospitals have been set up, along with shelters for the tens of thousands of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

The navy denied allegations by government officials that its Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service made a mistake by not immediately issuing a tsunami warning after the quake.

"Chile is short of experts, protocol and procedures, and communication among all of the concerned institutions" with respect to tsunami warnings, said University of Chile seismologist Jaime Campos.

The country should already have the satellite technology that is available today to detect the possibility of a tsunami while an earthquake is occurring, he argued.

"Unfortunately, Chile is a seismic country, one of the countries with the highest levels of earthquake activity in the world, if not the highest. It's vulnerable to quite frequent tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic activity, and the country needs mechanisms adapted to all of these natural threats," Campos stressed.

These mechanisms must include "instruments, protocols, institutions, and an army of researchers, experts and engineers in every area," which it does not currently have to the required extent.

The director of the National Emergency Office, Carmen Fernández, said the country lacks a "tsunami culture ... We do not have enough experience."

False tsunami alerts issued on Sunday fanned fears, especially in the port city of Valparaíso, 120 km south of Santiago.

"The news we are receiving is worse and worse," Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma said Sunday.

Saturday's was the second-worst earthquake in Chilean history, after the quake that registered between 9.0 and 9.5 on the Richter scale in the southern province of Valdivia in 1960, to date the most powerful earthquake ever recorded.

The extent of the devastation caused by this weekend's quake was not immediately visible due to the vast stretch of territory affected and the communications problems that followed in its wake.

The quake was felt to some extent in 11 of Chile's 15 regions, from Antofagasta in the north to Los Lagos in the south.

After Maule and Bío-Bío, the most affected regions were Valparaíso, the Santiago Metropolitan region, and O'Higgins.

The University of Chile's Seismology Service initially reported that the quake registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, but it later put it between 8.6 and 8.8, in line with reports by international institutions.

On Sunday night, socialist President Bachelet, who had set up a National Emergency Committee, met in her home with right-wing President-elect Sebastián Piñera, who takes office Mar. 11, to coordinate aid and assistance measures.

The government said that while Chile has the financial resources needed to deal with the disaster, it is studying several specific offers of foreign aid, such as field hospitals or telecoms equipment.

Bachelet and Piñera have underlined that both the public and private sector must get involved in the reconstruction effort.

Housing Minister Patricia Poblete said the country's buildings withstood the quake fairly well, given its intensity.

But as the hours go by, criticism of construction companies and government oversight is growing, as people point to the collapse of recently built homes and buildings.

However, others emphasize that due to Chile's strict seismic construction standards -- the most stringent in Latin America, according to Poblete -- the destruction was infinitely less than in Haiti, where at least 214,000 people died in the Jan. 12 quake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale -- considered 50 times less intense than Saturday's temblor here.

In Concepción, a 14-floor building inaugurated in 2009 completely collapsed, and the search for survivors continues amidst the pain of family members.

On Sunday, the airport in Santiago was partially reopened, as repairs to the severe damages in a passenger terminal got underway.

Experts rule out further quakes or tsunamis in the next few hours, but warn that less intense aftershocks could be felt for up to three months.

"We are facing an emergency without precedents in the history of Chile," said Bachelet.

The U.S.-based catastrophe modeling firm EQECAT estimated that the impact of the disaster would be equivalent to 10 to 15 percent of Chile's GDP, while reconstruction costs would be much higher than the stated losses, due to stricter new building standards.

But Finance Minister Andrés Velasco said Monday there are as yet no official figures on the short and medium-term impact of the tragedy.

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