From Aftershocks to Afterthoughts

After 8.8-magnitude earthquake, Chileans recover and rebuild

By Veronica Pugin, CMC’ 12

Chile_mapflagIn the middle of the night on February 27, Chileans awoke to an 8.8 earthquake. In its aftermath, Chile as a government, country, and nation has responded with high expectations and reconstruction. Millions have gathered food to send to victims, thousands of Chilean students have packed their bags to help rebuild, and Chilean musicians have dedicated songs to their country’s recovery. Chile’s political parties have exhibited commendable unity to address the crisis, and the international community has responded generously. This relief effort is commendable in itself, but in Chile’s case, it is especially so considering two factors: Chile is a recently developed country (considered the “South American tiger”) and, within less than two weeks of the earthquake, the country underwent a presidential transition. While one may wonder how Chile, a small country of 16.5 million people, has already managed to make significant strides toward reconstruction, the answers lie in four factors: Chile’s history with earthquakes, developed infrastructure, economic power, and national unity.

To understand the magnitude of this earthquake, consider this: Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake had only a 7.0 magnitude; Chile’s earthquake is said to have shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds; and the resulting tsunami, which further damaged the Chilean coast, necessitated a warning sent to over 25 countries, according to the National Weather Service’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. La Tercera, one of Chile’s nationally acclaimed news sources, reported that the earthquake and the tsunami caused 486 deaths, damaged 500,000 homes, and impacted two million Chileans. Chile’s Maule Region, south of the capital city of Santiago, was affected worst. The disasters crumbled buildings, split roads, damaged ports, cracked the runways of the newly built Santiago international airport, and collapsed crucial bridges connecting the north and south of the country. Aftershocks continue to terrify the public.

Compared to Chile’s 9.5-magnitude Valdivia earthquake in 1960, this year’s earthquake caused less damage and pain to the nation. In that disaster, an estimated 6,000 lives and three to five billion of today’s U.S. dollars were lost. Dr. Ivan Videla, who ran the main hospital handling this catastrophe, explained the country’s newfound preparedness. “Fifty years later, Chile was much more prepared to handle this earthquake,” he told the Port Side. “Our buildings, leaders, financials, and the Chilean people were prepared.”

A key part of this preparedness included the strengthening of infrastructure. In the 40 years since Valdivia, Chile has developed a stable system to allow for the free movement of the country’s main products: copper, fruit, fish, and wine. Therefore, despite the devastation, Chile still had a decent roadway system to transport supplies and dispatch emergency aid groups the day after the earthquake. Moreover, the current administration’s four-phase rebuilding campaign should return damaged infrastructure to stable conditions within the next three to four years.

Chile’s strong economy is by far one of the main components behind the country’s resilience. Since the 1980s, Chile has seen a significant rise in economic performance and development. As the largest copper exporter in the world, Chile has brokered trade agreements with China – and when the price of copper increased rapidly in 2006, the Chilean government capitalized significantly on these deals. Andres Velasco, Chile’s 2006-2010 Finance Minister, strategically placed these extra funds into a reserve amounting to 30% of Chile’s GDP. As a result, Chile has barely suffered from the global financial crisis. And, unlike many other Latin American governments, Chile is not marred in debt and can spend resources on reconstruction efforts.

Bolstered by economic stability, the Chilean people have assumed a strong sense of national unity and responsibility. For better or worse, the Chilean people take much pride in the ability to help themselves. Many victims interviewed on Chile’s TVN News expressed diligence, noting their sole desires to work and overcome this situation. The Chilean society’s extreme unity and absence of internal tensions also manifests itself in slogans commonplace in this recovery and reconstruction campaign: “Support for the Chilean family,” “Stand up Chile,” and “Chile will be stronger than before.” Echoing these sentiments, donations have abounded. Organized by the Chilean government and NGOs, the 24-hour “Chile Ayuda a Chile” (“Chile Helps Chile”) fundraising telethon far exceeded its initial goal of raising 15 billion pesos ($29 million) and hit the 46 billion peso ($90 million) mark. According to La Tercera, 44% of these funds came from the public and 56% came from Chilean businesses.

The self-initiated Chilean student movement has also proven phenomenal. College students have organized bus trips to help rebuild the most damaged coastal cities, and thousands spent the equivalent of their spring break assisting. In an interview with the Port Side, Juan Pablo Aguilera, a student at Federico Santa María Technical University (the Chilean equivalent of MIT), exuded this sense of unity and student commitment. “Little by little, with everyone volunteering, we will raise Chile up,” he said. “Everyone is helping somehow. Here in Chile, everyone has a desire to help.” After spending his spring break in Pelluhue, Aguilera returned to the site a couple weeks later for Easter, this time bringing 250 more students from his school. “There is no problem getting students involved,” he added. “It is almost as if no one wants to be left out of rebuilding Chile.”

Chileans have succeeded in all these fronts while undergoing a presidential change. On March 11, former President Michelle Bachelet passed on her title to Sebastián Piñera. The recovery process is a key concern for the new administration, and Piñera, a former businessman, has rallied both the public and private sectors toward the rebuilding efforts. In fact, he was actively addressing reconstruction efforts right before his inauguration, during which a strong aftershock hit the Chilean Congress building.

Despite these strengths, many challenges lie ahead. Just as the U.S. has yet to recover fully from Hurricane Katrina, years will pass before Chile can overcome this catastrophe. Yet the nation does have a sturdy toolkit to address the issue. The economy should bounce back up within six months of the natural disaster, and S&P asserts that the earthquake will not negatively affect Chile’s credit. As efforts have moved from rescue missions to rebuilding missions, the national attitude remains positive. Aguilera explains, “People at times feel like it’s a lot because there is so much rebuilding to be done, but there is so much hope and optimism that Chile will recover.”

With continuous aftershocks, thousands of victims have lost their homes. There are, again, half a million homes that need to be rebuilt, and CNN estimates that the damage will cost $30 billion. Check out the Arriba Chile (Rise Up Chile) website to learn about an organization at the forefront of the student movement for reconstruction.

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

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