‘Everything is destroyed’ in Chilean coastal town

Monday, March 1, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY
With a report from Agence France-Presse

Josselin Benavides doesn’t recognize her home any more.

The 14-year-old has been watching the searing images – waterlogged streets, splintered power lines toppled in front of crumbled buildings; residents drowned in their beds; a fishing boat looking bizarrely huge in the middle of an otherwise razed public square.

But nowhere in the destruction-heavy footage does she see Constitucion, the picturesque coastal town where she grew up and where emergency workers found more than 350 dead in the wake of one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded.

“Of course I remember the city,” she said from Santiago, the Chilean capital, where she now lives and had been scouring the Internet for information. “But now, I look at the news and I recognize nothing – everything is destroyed.”

News of the dead in Constitucion doubled the death toll yesterday, which stood at more than 700 as Chilean rescue crews struggled to assess the damage and raced to reach trapped survivors in the numerous tiny, isolated coastal towns that bore the brunt of Saturday morning’s quake. Authorities are now saying the toll could be “in the thousands.”

It also highlighted what may have been a fatal error in Chile’s immediate disaster response: The country, which otherwise boasts extensive earthquake preparation and rigorous seismic building codes, didn’t issue a tsunami warning immediately after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through a historically fatal fault line at 3:34 a.m. Saturday morning.

“That was a mistake,” Defence Minister Francisco Vidal told reporters in a press conference.

Not issuing an alarm and failing to immediately evacuate residents from the vulnerable coast was a “diagnostic error,” he said.

But Simon Fraser University earth sciences professor John Clague says it’s doubtful Chilean authorities would have had time to evacuate anyone in the scant minutes between the quake and the wall of water that slammed shores shortly afterward.

This same region was hit hard once before: In 1960, the biggest earthquake ever recorded rocked the area, followed by a tsunami. Then, an alert was issued and people fled the beaches en masse in search of higher ground.

Now Ms. Benavides and her father are frantically trying to find their family from their hometown: Her mother, cousins and uncles were all living there, and she has no idea where they are.

But she’s most worried about her younger sister, Carla. She hasn’t been able to reach the 10-year-old since the quake.

“I have no idea where she was when the quake hit.”

Ms. Benavides is one of many struggling to make contact with friends and relatives in a communication vacuum: Phone lines are still down near the epicentre and many of these tiny municipalities are cut off entirely from the soutside world, vital roads and bridges ripped to pieces and rendered impassable.

Constitucion, a resort and fishing town with an industrial side – it boasts copper and coal mines, and a connection to the Celulosa Arauco y Constitucion, one of Chile’s largest timber exporters – would have been packed with tourists for the holiday season, which ends this week.

The resort town of Dichato, about 45 kilometres south of the epicentre, has been levelled, with water flooding 400 metres in from the coast.

Christian Pena was in the area around Constitucion and Dichato in December. Now the Toronto resident is worried about family in the region still unaccounted for, including his father and his grandmother, who is in a nursing home.

“I feel like I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

In a country that prides itself on seismically sound building codes, the reality is quite different in smaller towns like Constitucion. In areas with shortages of affordable housing, Mr. Pena said, “people built houses wherever they lived” – shantytowns built of a mix of wood and cement.

“The government’s always said that [building codes are in place]. … But in some areas, people never should have moved there.”

Small towns with basic infrastructure whose populations have swelled to accommodate thousands of tourists will also be feeling the pinch of food, water and electricity shortages.

“That’s where it bottlenecks,” Mr. Pena said. “Everyone needs water and everyone needs communication at the same time. It’s not like this thing where you can go home and turn on your computer.”

*****

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS

Quake

The early-morning quake was centred just off the coast, about 90 kilometres from Concepcion, Chile’s second-biggest city. It was caused by the rupture of two underwater crustal plates along a fault line all too familiar to any Chilean over 50: It was along that same line that the biggest quake ever recorded killed almost 2,000 people in 1960.

Deaths

Chilean authorities were warning the public to prepare for casualties “in the thousands” – far higher than the death toll of more than700 by late last night. The dramatic rise was punctuated by the discovery of hundreds of dead in Constitucion and other small coastal towns that bore the brunt of the quake and the powerful tsunami that followed.

Damage

Chile prides itself on stringent seismic preparation and strict building codes – the result of a history of powerful quakes. This, and the location of the epicentre away from major metropolises, helped minimize both damage and casualties. But more than two million people were nonetheless displaced. Roads were torn up, bridges collapsed and the airport put temporarily out of commission at one of the busiest times of the year.

Rescue efforts

Rescuers scrambled to find survivors trapped in Concepcion’s rubble yesterday, focusing their heat detectors and sniffer dogs on a collapsed 15-storey apartment building near the train station. “There are believed to be 48 people trapped inside who we believe are alive,” said firefighter and team leader Ignacio Carrizo. Residents said the yellow building is relatively new, having been built just three years ago. It houses 80 apartments.

Aid

As it scrambles to get emergency water, food, medical care and shelter to the estimated 1.5 million people affected by Saturday’s earthquake, Chilean authorities have been unequivocal: Thanks for the offers of international aid, but – for now, at least – no thanks.

Tsunami

The entire Pacific Rim held its breath, bracing for a quake-caused tsunami. But dozens of countries exhaled Saturday and yesterday as warnings and advisories were lifted and evacuation orders rescinded.

Security

The Chilean government imposed a curfew in the Concepcion and Maule areas and sent in more than 100,000 troops in an attempt to quell looting. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at would-be foragers.

Canadian connections

More than 1,100 Canadians were registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs as being in Chile; 60 of them in Concepcion, near the earthquake’s epicentre. As of last night, DFAIT had no information on Canadians missing, injured or killed in the quake. Several Canadians, however, are awaiting word that family members in the quake zone are all right. Among then is Nancy Venegas, whose father, Miguel Venegas, was visiting the future retirement property he’d built in the tiny town of Cobquecura, barely 30 kilometres away from the quake’s epicentre. “Just sitting here, and everyone else in the family is there, and not being able to find out absolutely anything is pretty harsh,” Ms. Venegas said.

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