On the morning of March 25, shortly after 4 a.m., the mayor of Copiapó, Mario Cicardini, drove around town honking his car’s horn and buzzing doorbells, trying to warn inhabitants that a nearby river was about to overflow and sweep through their homes, carrying mud and debris.
“I knew what was coming,” Cicardini told reporters, “because of my grandparent’s stories, not because of the Onemi.”
According to Cicardini’s account, he didn’t receive any warnings from Chile’s National Office of Emergency of the Interior Ministry (Onemi) instructing him to evacuate the city of more than 150,000 people, ahead of torrential rainfall that flooded areas of the Atacama, Antofagasta and Coquimbo regions.
The tragedy, which has so far cost 26 lives and left more than 29,000 people homeless, is now raising difficult questions about Chile’s ability to prevent and respond to natural catastrophes.
Critics are pointing to the state’s failure to learn from the lessons of 27-F, the earthquake and tsunami that hit Chile in 2010.
A country vulnerable to diverse threats
Few countries in the world are as prone to natural catastrophes as Chile. Its location at the collision point of two tectonic plates makes Chile one of the most seismic places on earth, while a coastline that stretches more than 6,000 kilometers puts the country at great risk of tsunamis caused by the very frictional ground upon which the its lays.
Earthquakes have become an integral part of Chilean life. The month of March, however, revealed a rather apocalyptic picture of the country, with the eruption of the Villarrica volcano, wildfires in the south, and deadly floods in the north, which experts say could become increasingly common due to the effects of climate change.
The preventive evacuation held ahead of the Villarrica eruption ran smoothly, with the potentially destructive act of nature transforming into a spectacle of beauty instead. Although Chile is not the country with the largest number of active volcanoes (only 91 out of the world’s 2,000 active volcanoes are on Chilean soil), its southern specimens are among those that erupt most often, with the country seeing an average of one major eruption every eight years.
Although they have received less media attention than Villarrica’s eruption, the wildfires currently burning through forests in the southern regions of El Maule, Biobío, La Araucanía and Los Ríos present a worrying phenomenon, as they are an indication of the emergency services’ apparent failure to cope with large-scale natural disasters.
As of April 7, a staggering 19 wildfires were active and affecting a 22,170-acre area of vegetation, while another 34 were considered “under control” by the Onemi. Five days later, on April 12, the Onemi recorded no signs of progress as the figure of 19 wildfires remained stable. The number of extinguished fires also stagnated at two. A drop in the number of “controlled fires” from 34 to 27 therefore indicates that 7 cases escaped from the government’s reach in those five days.
As Chile’s south, a normally wet area with abundant forests, currently experiences a severe drought, the recurrence of wildfires could increase if the causes go unaddressed.
Finally, the flooding that submerged the northern part of the country in March has added yet another potentially destructive disaster to the list of threats Chile faces.
Torrential rains in arid land are not new, but they are a rare occurrence that normally manifests in snowstorms high in the Andes. According to meteorologists, warm winds coming from the Amazon area meant that instead of solidifying into snow, rain poured down the Andes.
The nature of the soil and the area’s geographic characteristics only exacerbate the north’s vulnerability to this kind of deluge, as the arid land transforms into a sea of mud traveling at great speed through valleys, facilitated by the lack of vegetation.
Is something wrong with Chile’s emergency services?
As previous natural disasters have shown and the current tragedy in the north seems to reinforce, Chile’s ability to prevent and react to natural disasters is not always up to scratch considering the country’s vulnerability.
Miscommunication seems to be a recurrent issue. The most unfortunate and controversial case to date remains the delayed tsunami warning following the earthquake that hit Chile on February 27, 2010.
According to an investigation by CIPER Chile, officials from Chile’s Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service (SHOA) ignored warnings from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and only realized a tsunami had formed eight hours after the disaster. Officials from the Onemi, meanwhile, were allegedly incapable of interpreting data received by the SHOA.
During this year’s floodings, the Onemi also came under heavy criticism after the Meteorology Services insisted a report foreseeing the events was sent to the Onemi but that the institution had not responded accordingly.
No matter which entity is at fault, bolstering effective communication between the different agencies that monitor potential disasters remains essential if the risks are to be minimized.
Even greater planning is required in the management of territory, defining areas at risk and imposing restrictions on land that has been deemed vulnerable. Following the recent flooding in the north, concerns were raised over artificial reservoir dams holding tons of mineral waste accumulated from mining. This task would not only be on the Onemi’s hands but ought to include numerous ministries, which, unlike the Onemi, have the authority to execute decisions.
The Onemi’s shortcomings stem from its limited mandate, while expectations put on its ability to operate are extremely high. The Onemi advises the Interior Ministry, the government body that encompasses it, as well as regional and local authorities, providing necessary technical coordination. But when it comes to responding to an emergency on the ground, the Onemi does not have officials in place across Chile’s regions.
Chile, like its emergency services, remains extremely centralized. Expanding the Onemi’s authority to operate, while bolstering its capacity, could greatly diminish the confusion and sometimes deadly miscommunication that often surrounds natural disasters in Chile. Decentralizing the emergency services is therefore a priority if Chile’s ability to cope is to be strengthened.