27F: Five years later, looking back at the earthquake that shook Chile
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27F: Five years later, looking back at the earthquake that shook Chile

On February 27, 2010, Chile was struck by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that practically destroyed several small towns between the fifth and ninth Regions, including districts in Santiago. Approximately 13 million people — 75 percent of the population — were affected, as more than 200,000 houses were destroyed, 40 hospitals and 4,000 schools were declared unusable and 526 people were killed. The damage to public patrimony was estimated at $30 billion: almost 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

It was the second strongest earthquake in Chilean history.

Failure to report a possible tsunami by the National Emergency Office (ONEMI) and the Navy led to an even bigger catastrophe. At least 30 lives would have been saved had the authorities warned the population and set evacuation orders in time.

The lack of information most affected the inhabitants of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, 600 kilometers off the coast of Chile, who did not feel the earth tremble under their feet and were taken entirely by surprise by the devastating tsunami, which killed 11 people and destroyed their town. To date, many children still attend modular schools and people continue waiting for a decent potable water system.

Slow reconstruction

Five years after the catastrophe, several towns and districts are yet to be reconstructed or have been poorly rebuilt; their citizens are adrift in a bureaucratic ocean, waiting for sufficient (or any) help to come. Two weeks ago, Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo visited one of the affected towns to inspect the reconstruction process and criticized the efforts of the previous president, Sebastián Piñera.

“Unfortunately, because the delivery of many homes was a sloppy and fast process, especially in the Bío Bío Region, what we have today are serious problems, in some cases, of the quality of the constructions. And so people are faced with a second painful and difficult situation when the rainy winter comes and the flaws of the construction of many houses are evident,” Peñailillo said in a press conference. He added that “the government will use all the resources necessary to repair these houses.”

Many homes in Lolol are now abandoned, as there was little reconstruction following the earthquake. Photo: Amanda Rutllant

Many homes in Lolol are now abandoned, as there was little reconstruction following the earthquake. Photo: Amanda Rutllant

President Michelle Bachelet’s government has a large task at hand: to finish the reconstruction process that began under the Piñera administration and was never completed. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the process will be finished by 2016.

Abandoned landscapes

According to documents presented by the government in January, 228,187 total housing subsidies were given to people affected by the catastrophe, out of which 221,009 are now finished houses.

However, only 169,013 of them are actually in use; 3,913 have construction flaws, while another 38,083 have not yet been handed over to their owners because they lack basic services such as a sewage system and electricity. This means that a full 26 percent of the housing reconstruction process is still underway.

Abandoned possessions gather dust in Lolol's houses. Photo: Amanda Rutllant

Abandoned possessions gather dust in Lolol’s houses. Photo: Amanda Rutllant

The situation has forced people to continue living in the emergency houses that were given to them as a temporary solution. In an interview with a local radio station, Lilian Bastías, head of the Fernando Paz de Caleta Tumbes emergency neighborhood, describes the hardships she and her neighbors have experienced in five years of living in emergency houses. Their real houses have been built for a year now, but they still can’t move in because there is no electricity.

“It’s been two winters already that [the houses] are there and we look at them from far away, freezing inside the emergency houses, waiting for the nice and cozy houses without being able to live in them,” said Bastías. “We are not willing to spend another winter here. It’s been too long since we got here. With or without the support of the government, with or without the proper paperwork, we will be leaving in April.”

“Winter is coming and also the rain,” she added, “and we’ve spent five years here and are not willing to keep doing so.”

The interior of a house destroyed during the earthquake. Photo: Amanda Rutllant

The interior of a house destroyed during the earthquake, with a 2012 census sticker on the door. Photo: Amanda Rutllant

Fixing a deficient alert system

The reconstruction of houses, public patrimony, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure is only one part of the slow process towards reconstruction. The other challenge is to create an emergency system capable of alerting citizens of natural catastrophes in due time.

One of the biggest mistakes of Bachelet’s first term was the government’s failure to warn the country of a possible tsunami. Even though the Navy — more specifically, the Navy’s Hydrography and Oceanography Service (SHOA) — received a message from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center telling them a tsunami was underway, they disregarded the message and did not alert the authorities. Since the SHOA must be the first entity to give out the alert, the ONEMI also failed to inform the public.

Five years later, the SHOA has made several improvements to its alert system. One of the most important projects is an updated database of earthquakes that would shorten the time required to contact the ONEMI in case of an earthquake.

Additionally, the ONEMI made an agreement with Chile’s National Seismology Service and invested $6.14 million in updating its equipment and training specialized personnel. The Center will also strengthen the chain of communication between different entities to shorten delays in alerts.

The consequences that the 2010 earthquake left behind are numerous, and the challenge of fixing not only the physical and emotional damage but also the deficient alert system, seems like a series of unfulfilled promises.

Only time will tell if Bachelet’s government will be able to finish this urgent task or if the affected will have to wait five more years to see their houses, schools, hospitals and lives rebuilt.

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