Eyewitness: Earthquake in Chile

Bassel Namih - TCS Reporter 4 March 2010

At 03.34am, Saturday 27th February, the seventh most powerful earthquake on record shook Chile. At the time of going to print, 723 people had been confirmed dead.

The quake had a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale, and the epicentre was 70 miles north-east of Concepcion, Chile’s second city, 200 miles south-west of the capital, Santiago.

The Cambridge Student (TCS) was able to contact Alex Geiger, Consul General of the Chilean embassy in San Francisco. “This is a highly emotional situation, so you can imagine the people’s distress. They need to be able to know what is going on, how the government is acting and how it is controlling the situation.”

On Sunday, the government declared a state of emergency, and deployed the military to the worst affected areas. Many phone lines and mobile communications towers are down, making it almost impossible to communicate in some regions.

Several highways to the south of the country have collapsed and Concepcion is essentially isolated. The authorities have set up a special air route from Santiago to the second city, through which 300 tonnes of aid will pass.

A crisis group from Kenya, called Ushahidi, has provided an online mapping tool that can aggregate and chart reports coming from citizens via e-mail, SMS and Twitter. “Social networking has been quite a useful tool to cope with the problems communications are posing for us”, says Geiger. These means enabled him to find out that his daughters, at university in Chile, were safe.

Speaking to TCS, Jocelyne Geiger living in Santiago, recounts Saturday’s events, “I was sleeping when it started. It started to shake a little and then gradually built up.

I remember the quake was really strong because I could hear things falling in the living room. It was also really long, lasting a bit more than two minutes.”

“Most of my friends reacted like me; they either stayed where they were or went under a door frame. There was a lot panic because there hasn’t been an earthquake like this since 1985 and Saturday’s was much stronger.”

In Concepcion, residents have clashed with police after trying to break into shops and supermarkets. The city has been under curfew at night since troubles began, and hundreds have been arrested for looting and wandering the streets after dark.

 A 22-year-old man was shot and killed in the violence. In addition to looting, there have also been reports of arson. The issue of security has been the largest concern as it has delayed aid and rescue efforts.

“Some people weren’t even robbing food, but plasma TVs. The government have brought the fuerzas armadas to Concepcion because the police have not been successful in calming people and stopping the looting.”

There has been confusion regarding the government’s supposed decision to wave off international aid immediately after the earthquake. Geiger clarifies, “People have got it wrong regarding international aid. The government was saying, ‘Let us do an assessment of the situation. This is not Haiti; this is a different context. We need at a least a day to know what kind of international assistance we need, if any.'”

In fact, Chilean rescue personnel, soldiers and aid workers played a significant role in Haiti. Officials believe this has left the Chilean government short of supplies such as plastic sheets and tents.

“Today they went to the international community with a specific list of things that are necessary. For example, desalination equipment is needed to process salt water in coastal areas, which have been particularly heavily hit.”

The government did not have time to issue tsunami warnings to these coastal areas, as huge waves hit towns and villages within minutes of the initial earthquake. The devastation is widespread, and in Constitucion, a fishing village flanked by the ocean and a river, 300 hundred bodies were found.

Now that further assessments have been made, the government has asked the United Nations for generators, field hospitals, mobile bridges and damage evaluation experts, in addition to desalination equipment already requested.

Elisabeth Byrs, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says, “We are looking immediately to match the needs.”

Australia has promised $4.5m in emergency and reconstruction aid, while the European Commission has approved €3m in emergency funds. Japan and China have also promised $3m and $1m respectively.

Though the capital is beginning to function again, the status quo has not yet returned. “In Las Condes, the damage was generally minimal and things are completely back to normal now. Almost everyone that lives in this sector has water, electricity, gas and working phone lines.

However, in other sectors of Santiago, like La Reina, most people still don’t have any of these utilities in their homes, and the traffic lights still aren’t working. The news has failed to show the huge differences between neighbourhoods in Santiago,” says Jocelyne who lives in Las Condes.

Across Chile, the earthquake has affected approximately two million people. The cost of repair has been estimated between £9.8bn-£19.6bn. “Chile belongs to a list of countries located in the pacific basin that experience this kind of activity and so has agencies whose mandate it is to deal with these activities,” says Geiger.

“We will be more prepared for the next earthquake than we were for this one, and so on. It’s an ongoing process.”

Bassel Namih – TCS Reporter