A deafening roar, then chaos in Chile

Anna Mehler Paperny and Eva Salinas
From Sunday’s Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Toronto and Santiago — The building pitched. The windows rattled. Items flew off the shelves and the air was filled with the sounds of rumbling buildings and heaving earth.

Thrown from her bed at 3:34 a.m. by one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded, Claire Buré ran to a door frame in her Santiago apartment and held on for dear life.

“It was panic.”

The Belleville, Ont., native shouted back and forth with neighbours from doorways and windows as the pitch-black streets filled with debris and frantic people. Hours later, her otherwise quiet neighbourhood was lost in smoke from chemical fires and dust from rubble. About 500 kilometres from the capital, the city of Concepcion, near the earthquake’s epicentre, was a scene of chaos at nightfall.No stranger to seismic events, Chile is reeling after the 8.8-magnitude quake left at least 300 people dead, collapsed bridges and major transportation arteries, subsumed trucks in jags of shattered concrete and toppled buildings.

But the emergency response in the quake’s immediate aftermath has shown a sharp contrast to the far smaller earthquake that effectively destroyed much of Haiti in January, killing more than 200,000. The rural epicentre helped lessen the amount of destruction and the number of casualties, as did Chile’s earthquake preparedness, its construction practices and its ability to respond to disasters.

The predawn tremors put the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire on alert as dozens of countries braced themselves for tsunamis. Waves swamped the Easter Islands and Chilean coast. Piers in the port town of Talcahuano were left splintered, boats tossed like bath toys.

Dozens of aftershocks registered as high as 6.9 and continued to topple buildings last night, exacerbating chaos as thousands of people slept in the streets and entire provinces in Chile’s south were without electricity, phone service or water. Tsunamis lashed the country’s coast, said Victor Gavilan of Calgary, who exchanged frantic e-mails with relatives in the hardest-hit areas. “The town of Dichato is all under the water. The tsunami destroyed everything. No idea how many are missing,” he said.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared a “state of catastrophe” as the country’s emergency services attempted to take stock of the damage, search for buried victims and treat the wounded crowding into overflowing, damaged hospitals. Normally bustling Santiago was eerily quiet, some streets filled with smoke from fires and debris.

Mr. Gavilan awoke yesterday morning to heart-stopping 5 a.m. e-mails: “I write this in communal pain – Mother Nature has dealt our country another blow,” wrote his friend Felix Mora, a Torontonian in Santiago.

“The pain and despair are combined with the hope that the victims aren’t many,” Mr. Mora wrote. “Roads severed, bridges destroyed, homes collapsed, the airport closed – and even that fails to demonstrate the full fury of this earthquake.”

The messages brought back harrowing flashbacks for Mr. Gavilan, who was just 14 when a 9.5-magnitude quake – the biggest ever recorded in the world – ripped through his home in southern Chile in 1960, killing nearly 2,000 people. A tsunami the next day sent people fleeing the coast and turned his family’s backyard into a tent city for those escaping flooded homes.

“The roof was ripped off – you could see the sky appear.”

Jaime Jara Quilodran was on vacation on Easter Island when the quake hit. He found himself forcibly moved by authorities to the hills to flee the tsunami aftereffects of the quake, which killed at least five people on the island and left 11 missing. He also missed seeing the floor of his parents’ Concepcion house swallowed up by the earth, sending the entire family to join others displaced in the public square.

“The police evacuated us to the hills very early,” he said in an e-mail trying to reassure panicked family in Canada. “Despite that, the island is very pretty.”

The quake threw into stark relief the effects of the far smaller 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti little more than a month before. In the wake of the 8.8 tremors, Chile’s authorities were scrambling to respond, but said they so far don’t need outside help in rebuilding or addressing the damage. The country’s emergency infrastructure, and its seismic building codes, are designed to lessen the blow of frequent earthquakes.

Heraldo Munoz, Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN that despite severe damage, the country doesn’t need any help for now.

“As of now, we are dealing with this tragic situation with our own resources. With calm, with good co-ordination. But this we have to evaluate because the material damages are very, very considerable.”

Numerous international leaders pledged to support Chile if asked. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada is “ready to provide any necessary assistance.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Chile as they respond to this emerging natural disaster,” he said in a statement. “Canadian officials in Santiago and Ottawa are currently assessing the situation to clarify the extent of the damage, as well as to determine the potential impact on Canadians who are currently in Chile.” There are 1,100 Canadians registered in Chile, and 60 in Concepcion.

The massive quake comes as Chile gears up for a political transition – to its first right-wing government since the rule of military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera was in Concepcion yesterday, lamenting the injuries and damages and vowing to crack down on any collapsed buildings that weren’t adhering to the country’s seismic safety codes.

World Vision Canada president Dave Toycen said the charity, which has about 100 staff on the ground in the country, is preparing its initial emergency response – food, water, shelter and medical care for the isolated communities they normally work with.

Although having a rural epicentre means less destruction and fewer casualties, it also makes it harder to get aid to people in isolated areas.

“The effort to get aid to people is even more complicated and expensive,” he said.

“Do they have water? Is there trauma and emergency care for people who are injured? … Once the assessment’s complete enough so that we can see where the damage and the destruction is in the area where were working we can begin to respond.”

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