Chile Earthquake: The Political Aftershocks Have Been Stronger

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EconomyWatch.com received this personal account from one of the team's relatives, who lives in Santiago:

The Chilean Earthquake, February 2010

EconomyWatch.com received this personal account from one of the team's relatives, who lives in Santiago:

The Chilean Earthquake, February 2010


Well, that was the big one. Everyone knew it was coming - 25 years had passed since the last big slip of the rocky plates - but of course nobody knew exactly where or when. And it was big (the fifth strongest ever rcorded). A friend of 78, who has experienced the last four big ones, said this was the longest; almost 3 minutes. Our house-mate said it was like being on a surf-board (on the ground floor), with a terrific noise like a train and scraping metal. The energy released was equivalent to 100 Hiroshimas.

Because people are used to strong tremors and earthquakes, and most buildings are well- built, deaths were relatively few (between 350 and 450, probably). Even though the death count was badly organised, it is clear that a big majority died on the coast due to the tsunami(s), and that many of those should not have died (see below). In a country of 16 million (a quarter of the UK), there are 800,000 homeless, and 260,000 homes, 25 hospitals and 4,000 schools destroyed or with serious damage.

Chile has had anti-seismic building standards for many years, succesively strengthened pre- and post- the Pinochet dictatorship (his contribution to urban development was to allow huge areas of prime vineyard land to be built on in Santiago, with no open spaces or storm drains, so that many areas regularly flooded until big drains were laid in recent years). In the areas near the epicentre, though, many, many old houses of adobe (mud and straw) collapsed.

In a country with gross inequality, of course, many poor people build their own houses as best they can, ignoring regulations, or live in the worst housing. So, as always, the poor suffered most: those who lived in old adobe buildings, or poorly built houses. In Santiago, many of the worst hit were poor Peruvian immigrants in multi-occupation old adobe houses.

The exceptions, supposedly good, modern buildings that suffered severe damage, have caused outrage. Middle class homes jerry-built by fraudulent developers have also shown up. The 15-storey block of 'decent' flats in Concepción that fell on its back went down with the first tremors, being built on made-up, unstable ground. Many other apartment blocks suffered severe damage, and the builders/developers have disappeared, or offer to repair the main structure but not internal walls, shift assets into other companies, or are using other means to try and avoid giving real compensation.

Aftershocks

I missed the big shock but two weeks later an 'after shock' of 'only' 6.9 Richter during the day still unnerved me, although it was 100 times weaker than the big one. And you can feel the ground moving almost every day; this will continue, possibly with another major shock, for two or three months.

The political aftershocks have been stronger.

The first was the horrific lack of warning of the tsunami, that took most of the lives lost. The Navy is responsible for giving warnings, and it has been shown up as totally inept and unprepared (seven major mistakes have been counted). The officer on duty did not read English, so even the tsunami warning from the US agency (also broadcast on CNN) was not heeded. Communications were almost totally cut for hours but many people on the coast heard from radios that the tsunami warning had been lifted, returned to houses near sea level, and perished. Legal actions are now starting.

The head of the Navy's Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service has been dismissed and will leave the Navy. The head of the civilian Emergency Service also resigned. The lack of preparation was shown by the humiliating gift of a few satellite phones by Hillary Clinton, on a visit 12 days later. There were none before. The Air Force did not provide a helicopter for President Michelle Bachelet until 6 hours after the quake.

Investigations continue into the reasons for the collapse of the internet, most mobile phone antennae (built on the cheap with no back-up), and electricity supply.

Social Shocks

When you cannot rely on stability even of the ground beneath your feet, if you feel the danger of your house collpasing, the experience was shocking. In a country with extremely limited social protection, where 80% or more of the population has no access to first class health care or education because of the cost (or, at university level, even thjird rate education), and where individualism and consumerism are the supreme 'normal' values, the reaction of many people was to try and get some things, goods, anything. This explains much of the looting that happened, mostly in the badly hit city of Concepción. There was also the fact that this was the end of the month, when people go en masse to supermarkets to buy food, and they were closed.

Many looters have been identified from videos, and arrested: 90% had no previous police record. In other places, shops were looted after the shop-keepers started to charge 2 or 3 times normal prices.

Ernesto Berríos, the well-known Chaplain of the 'Hogar de Cristo' (Home of Christ), a Jesuit charity for the homeless said this: "The social earthquake that produced looting and destruction is perhaps due to the fact that a part of our society has imperceptibly accumulated disappointment over the years, feeling marginalised from development, and this has slowly corroded their values, with lost hope and anti-values. Thus, unjustifiably, all this accumulated frustration was released in behaviour explainable only in those who have nothing to lose."

Other reactions, not so widely publicised, are the multiple actions of solidarity, of neighbours helping neighbours, social organisations helping similar groups, and the great wave of collections up and down the country (as well as the inevitable 'Telethon' featuring prominent businessmen and showbiz 'personalities' (?). Many of the hard-hit communiities have organised soup-kitchens and other collective effort, the self-help measure that poor communities got used to during the 17 years of dictatorship.