Responding to Quake, Chile Uses Lessons of Past


Soon after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit southern Chile in 2010 near the end of President Michelle Bachelet_s...


Soon after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit southern Chile in 2010 near the end of President Michelle Bachelet_s first term, officials failed to issue a tsunami warning before a massive wave killed a large number of the 525 people who died in the disaster. Looting then plagued hard-hit areas after Ms. Bachelet delayed allowing the military to move in.

This time around, when an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck Tuesday night off the coast of northern Chile, officials leapt into action by comparison.


Officials ordered the evacuation of Chile_s entire coast, an operation that proceeded largely without major problems aside from the escape of hundreds of inmates from a women_s prison in the northern city of Iquique. It also took just hours for Ms. Bachelet, now at the start of her second term, to send in special police forces as reinforcements, while also putting military generals in control of security in two regions most affected by the earthquake.

By the time the authorities lifted the tsunami warning on Wednesday morning, they counted just six people dead from the earthquake. The feared tsunami was far less intense than previous killer waves, and Defense Minister Jorge Burgos said the situation in the affected regions was normal, with no disruptions of public order.

While good luck and the earthquake_s location seem to have prevented more destruction, the response by officials revealed important shifts in Chile_s preparation for such disasters.

_The 2010 earthquake provided us with an enormous learning opportunity,_ said Helia Vargas, an official at Onemi, Chile_s national emergency service.

The changes, largely carried out during the administration of President Sebasti__n Pi__era, a conservative businessman who took office shortly after the 2010 earthquake, included the completion of emergency-response offices throughout the country with staff members prepared to work around the clock.

Ms. Vargas said that telecommunications systems were strengthened and protocols were established to improve coordination on tsunami alerts between public and private emergency relief agencies. Moreover, officials have been carrying out evacuation simulations, establishing routes and procedures used by coastal residents on Tuesday night.

Ms. Bachelet, speaking from Iquique on Wednesday, pointed to the ability of Chile, one of Latin America_s most prosperous and stable countries, to respond _in an exemplary way,_ as calm prevailed over areas rattled by the earthquake.

With about 300 smaller earthquakes shaking northern Chile in recent weeks in an unusual surge in seismic activity in the region, geologists say the nation_s preparedness could be tested again soon.

_This one didn_t release all the energy of its earthquake-producing zone,_ said Richard W. Allmendinger, a structural geologist at Cornell University who also teaches at a university in Antofagasta, a port city in northern Chile. _It appears to be something of a pipsqueak, making us wonder if it_s a foreshock of a much larger earthquake._

And just before midnight on Wednesday, the north was struck again, with a major aftershock measuring 7.6. Again, coastal areas were evacuated, including the hotel in Arica where the president was staying. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.

It was in 1960 near the Chilean city of Valdivia, Dr. Allmendinger pointed out, that a 9.5-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful recorded since 1900, left trails of destruction and about 1,600 people dead. Another earthquake in Iquique in 1877, with a magnitude of 8.5, set off a 75-foot-high tsunami that left thousands dead.

In contrast, the waves created by Tuesday_s earthquake were just a few feet high. A larger tsunami may have been avoided because of the earthquake_s location near the coastline, preventing a larger wave from forming, according to preliminary analyses by geologists.

Not everyone is convinced that Chile has significantly improved its emergency preparedness methods since the 2010 earthquake.

Michel De L_Herbe, an emergency management consultant, said that policies remained highly centralized, preventing bottom-up responses. Beyond that, he said, recently hired employees of the national emergency service lack experience and training, and only a small portion of equipment purchased during Ms. Bachelet_s first term for the National Seismic Center has been installed.

_The advances are more cosmetic than technical a lot of the time,_ Mr. De L_Herbe said.

New York Times | By PASCALE BONNEFOY and SIMON ROMERO

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