Monday, March 1, 2010

The Earthquake in Chile

The following letter was received today from an old schoolmate that lives in Chile. Being concerned for his welfare I made contact to see how he was. He's doing okay but the country is in a mess and the way he describes it, it would appear that it's only going to get worse. Here's his letter:

"Thanks for thinking of me. Yes, it was the "big one". The electric power is still out in my neighborhood, and in many other areas of Santiago there is no water either. The people are still in a daze, which is understandable, but the government is in even more of a daze, which is inexcusable. There is no coordination of reconstruction, no repair work going on, no aid, no information, and no law-and-order.

Even when things are normal, crime is out of control. So now in the south of Chile, where the tsunami struck, there is total anarchy, the law of the jungle. Even though President Bachelet declared a curfew in Concepción, they didn't send in any military forces to enforce it. In fact, the local authorities (ex-communists) opposed the curfew order saying that it "reminded them of the military dictatorship." This morning the Navy send in 150 soldiers -- in an area as large as southern Ontario and where nearly 2 million people live -- and the Army said it will send 1 battalion. But the local authorities are opposed to even that, so there will be yet another "coordination meeting" today to decide what to do while the insane violence rages out of control.

Practically all of the supermarkets and stores in the 2 affected regions have been looted and vandalized, and untold numbers of people have been killed or wounded in robberies and assaults. What is most enfuriating is that the very same poor families whose houses were destroyed or damaged are the ones that are being robbed of whatever little they managed to save -- while the police and military cannot intervene because they all know that if they use their firearms they will be the ones who will be imprisoned and the criminals will go free.

The official death toll (711) is way behind the actual count. Most of the cadavers have not yet been identified -- even in normal times, the coroner's offices are slow and understaffed, so with this disaster they have been completely overwhelmed. And since there is absolutely no central registry of missing persons, the number of missing can only be guessed at this point.

As soon as the earthquake struck on Saturday, the authorities "categorically ruled out" a tsunami, and they advised everybody to stay in their homes and not to flee the coastal areas because there was supposedly no risk of a tsunami. But the tsunamis did strike hundreds of kilometers of coastline and killed hundreds of people who would have fled had they been warned. Therefore the usual Chilean governmental policy of "lowering the profile" of problems and minimizing risks, in this case was not only a public relations disaster, it also caused hundreds of needless deaths.

This was the worst time for a disaster -- the gov't has only 10 more days left before Sebastián Piñera takes over on Mar. 11, and the bureaucracies were just going through the motions this summer anyway. The gov't wants to dump this whole problem on Piñera and then blame him for all the problems in disaster relief. But the people can't wait 10 more days for help.

And forget about foreign aid; the problem is not money or technology, it is primarily a problem of chronic ineptitude in the public sector. Even in the best of times in Chile, the public health system is a disgrace, the public education system is woefully inferior to private education, and the judicial system doesn't work. Therefore it is no surprise that the public sector is incapable of providing disaster relief now. Over the last 15 years there were several other examples of ineptitude in the face of minor earthquakes, floods and a volcano. Those fiascos should have served as a warning that if the "big one" were to hit, the country would be prostrated for a long time to come.

Many people in the street have commented that when a major earthquake struck in 1985, the military immediately deployed over 20,000 combat troops to crack down on looters and violence, and they also put a swift end to profiteering by ordering store owners at gunpoint to reduce their prices to their normal levels. This time, however, greedy merchants have quintupled the price of bread and other foodstuffs in the affected areas thus causing further hunger and desperation, which in turn leads to more violence and chaos.

Sadly, there is no spirit of solidarity this time as there always was in the past in the face of natural disasters. Chilean social groups, charities and news media had always responded heroically, as did the average person whenever they could help their neighbor. This time, however, the ugly side of human nature has prevailed. In large measure it is because there is no leadership from the top."

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