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Monday, March 1

Chile's earthquake: Signs and portents for humankind

"The authorities acknowledged that the damage was spread over such a vast area that they were just beginning to get a grasp on it."

The death toll, now at 723, is continuing to rise. Despite Chile's experience in dealing with earthquakes the massive initial quake, powerful aftershocks, and a tsunami that tossed around huge shipping containers as if they were child's blocks, are exposing weaknesses in the country's disaster preparedness and building codes.These are portents that must be carefully considered when we look at disaster preparedness in our own country, as the tragedy in the Vendee and Charente-Maritime regions of France underscores.

Chile prides itself on earthquake-proof buildings and stringent building codes. The head of CNN's desk in Santiago said yesterday that every time there's an earthquake they rebuild with the latest anti-seismic technology. As the collapse of a brand new 15-story apartment building illustrates, there is still room for improvement.
The New York Times report below provides a good summary of disaster relief efforts in Chile and the problems they're encountering but before I turn to that, an amazing story is connected with the collapse of that apartment building; it reminds me of the 'meta' plot of the movie Signs, which is the priest's discovery that God cheats.
CONCEPCION, Chile (Feb. 28 - Associated Press) -- When their 13th-floor apartment in the 15 story building began to shake, Alberto Rozas pulled his 7-year-old daughter into the bathroom doorway and waited for it to stop.

Instead, they fell.

Thirteen stories they plummeted as their brand-new apartment building toppled like a felled tree, hugging each other all the way down.

Rozas had no idea which way was up until he looked through his apartment's shattered window and spotted light - "the light of the full moon."

Rozas and his daughter, Fernanda, clambered up and to safety with nothing more than a few cuts, scrapes and bruises.

"The earthquake and the fall were one single, horrible thing," Rozas told The Associated Press on Sunday. "I held onto her and she never let me go."


Rozas took Fernanda to her mother's house, then returned to help firefighters understand the layout of the toppled building.

He retrieved medicine and clothes for Fernanda. And his guitar.


Rozas' neighbors who lived on the other side of the hall found themselves trapped beneath the structure, as rescuers painstakingly used electric saws and a generator-powered hammer to cut into the concrete.

"We don't have any listening devices or cameras," said Ian Argo, a firefighter commander.

As of Sunday, 23 people had been pulled alive from the 15-story Rio Alta building and seven bodies had been removed. An estimated 60 people remained trapped inside Sunday.

Socovil, the company that opened the concrete-and-glass structure last June, issued a statement saying it had complied with all building codes. But many residents were angry.

"The construction was obviously poor," Rozas said. [...]
There was another spine-tingling story associated with the building's collapse. From the same AP report:
On the second floor, Maribel Alarcon and her husband Gunther rushed to comfort their 2-year-old son Oliver when he started crying moments before the temblor.

Their concern was their salvation: Oliver's bedroom was the only place spared in their apartment.

"We prayed a lot," Alarcon said. "And if God let us survive, that was because someone was going to rescue us."
But from the AP report, it looks as if Alberto Rozas and his wife were divorced or separated. So the question is what would have happened if the entire family had been together in that apartment during the quake. Only by holding tightly onto each other did the father and daughter survive and with no serious injury; I'm not sure three people could have held on tightly to each other during such a plummet.

Note too that because the father survived with barely a scratch he was able to help rescuers 'map' the building's layout, thus surely saving many trapped inside.

We're supposed to be creatures of free will and we are, but sometimes we can look back and find signs that God scanned far ahead in our lives and built a series of escape hatches that would allow us to survive at a critical moment. That some of the hatches can be tragic, confounding, or so prosaic as to escape notice at the time, and that their sum is vastly greater than their parts -- well, M. Night Shyamalan's genius showed all that in his profound meditation on faith and its accommodation for free will.

Wrecked Roads and Bridges in Chile Hinder Rescue Effort
New York Times, March 1, 2010

LIMA, Peru — Rescue workers and government troops struggled on Monday to reach earthquake-ravaged corners of Chile still cut off by crumbled roads, fallen bridges and downed telephone lines. Meanwhile, the Chilean government asked the United Nations for emergency assistance to cope with the widespread devastation.

Aftershocks continued to rattle heavily damaged cities along Chile’s coastline, complicating rescue efforts two days after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake touched off what President Michelle Bachelet called “an emergency unparalleled in the history of Chile.”

The death toll from Saturday’s quake rose to 711 — most in the country’s main wine-growing area — and was likely to increase, Chilean officials said Monday. Security officials told Chilean newspapers that dozens of people had been arrested on charges of looting and violating overnight curfews.

In the southern city of Concepción, 55 people were arrested for violating a curfew, Chile’s deputy secretary of the interior told La Tercera newspaper. Otherwise, he said, the city had been quiet overnight.

In scenes reminiscent of the frantic rescue efforts following January’s earthquake in Haiti, rescuers with trained dogs and search equipment began hunting through the rubble of collapsed houses and apartment buildings in search of survivors.

As they worked, the first waves of 10,000 soldiers dispatched by Ms. Bachelet to the hardest-hit areas began to arrive to restore order and help distribute aid, according to news reports.

But residents expressed frustration at what they called the slow pace of aid delivery. Several told Chilean radio that government provisions had been slow to arrive and said that almost all markets and stores had been stripped bare of food, water and other supplies. There were scattered reports of burglaries at abandoned homes in the earthquake zone. The United Nations said that Chile, in its request for emergency help, had asked for mobile bridges, generators, water filtration equipment, field hospitals and surgical centers, as well as help from damage-assessment teams.

“Everything is now moving,” said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We are looking immediately to match the needs. We need to see what we have in our stock to respond to this request.”

As the country’s farmers and vineyard owners began to tally the damage to Chile’s lucrative wine and fruit industries, wary investors sent the country’s main stock index tumbling nearly 2 percent on Monday afternoon. Chile exported more than $1 billion in wine last year, and is a major exporter of fresh grapes, apples, raspberries and other fruits to the United States.

A day earlier in Concepción, the police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who forced their way into shuttered shops. But law enforcement authorities, heeding the cries of residents that they lacked food and water, eventually settled on a system that allowed staples to be taken but not televisions and other electronic goods. Ms. Bachelet later announced that the government had reached a deal with supermarket chains to give away food to needy residents. Using power saws and their bare hands, rescue workers atop the rubble of collapsed buildings tried to pull out those caught inside. Although there were successes — like Julio Beliz, who managed to free his neighbor on Sunday from the rubble in Santiago, the capital, after hearing him yell out, “Julio, help me!” — the search for survivors was slowed by continuing aftershocks.

The earthquake, one of the strongest in recorded history, left a devastating footprint on a country that knows quakes well.

Residents of a collapsed 15-story apartment building in Concepción, opened just months ago, were outraged that it had been so badly damaged and were convinced that contractors had not complied with building codes that require buildings to be able to withstand temblors. Already, there was talk among residents of taking builders to court once the emergency is over.

On Sunday in Cobquecura, 50 miles north of Concepción, state television showed collapsed bridges, crashed buses and sunken pavement. Residents had fled to the hills, prompting local journalists to declare it a virtual ghost town.

In remote coastal towns, waves had obliterated homes, and boats were found on land next to overturned cars. The authorities acknowledged that the damage was spread over such a vast area that they were just beginning to get a grasp on it.

Early Sunday, a 6.1-magnitude aftershock, one of more than 100 that have followed the original quake, sent residents scrambling again for cover. With the earth still unsettled, many Chileans have opted to camp outside.

On Monday, the first of a series of significant temblors occurred at 3:24 a.m., with a magnitude of 4.8, according to seismologists at the United States Geological Survey, who placed the epicenter 105 miles south of the city of Valparaíso. Several aftershocks followed over the next hours, the most recent being a jolt with an estimated magnitude of 5.1 that struck at 1:56 p.m. local time, about 50 miles northeast of Concepción.

The National Office of Emergency has put the number of displaced people at two million.

Among the quake’s victims were Lurde Margarita Arias Dias, 24, and her infant child, Peruvian immigrants who were crushed as a wall toppled in their Santiago home.

“I tried to save them,” Adán Noé Saavedra Ríos, Lurde’s husband, told local reporters with tears in his eyes. He described his frantic wife trying to rush from the house with their daughter in her arms after the ground started moving. Before he knew it, he recounted, they were covered in rubble.

At the hospital in Talca, near the epicenter, personnel were treating victims in the parking lot because the hospital building was considered structurally unsound. Other hospitals were also damaged, and Ms. Bachelet said the military would set up field hospitals to treat the injured.

Speaking at a midday news conference on Sunday, Ms. Bachelet called on power companies to work quickly to repair their networks so that services could be restored and the country could begin to get back on its feet. “We need energy first,” she said, pointing out that cellphone communications, medical care and water distribution depended on it.

Ms. Bachelet said that the bulk of the known deaths, 541, took place in the Maule region, followed by Bío-Bío, where at least 64 people died. The military is taking charge of emergency operations in those two areas for the next month, she said.

The government has imposed a limited curfew in those areas that forbids people from wandering the streets at night, but will not force them inside damaged buildings.

Despite images of confrontation between the police and residents, officials said that the traumatized country remained mostly calm. Ms. Bachelet’s order will mean 10,000 soldiers will help in the relief effort, Defense Minister Francisco Vidal said.

The scenes of toppled buildings, overturned cars and bodies being hauled from rubble resembled those from Haiti a month and a half ago. But because of better building standards and because the epicenter was farther from populated areas and deeper, the scale of the damage from Chile’s significantly more powerful earthquake was nowhere near that sustained in Haiti, where more than 200,000 people are believed to have died.

The comparison with Haiti did little to soothe the suffering of Chileans, some of whom tearfully recounted how their children were crying for food and how their families were now living outside in the elements.

Still, many felt lucky to have survived.

“It was like God said, ‘No, run out the back,’ ” said Carmen Peña, 48, a grandmother whose home in Santiago was in shambles on Sunday. “If we’d gone out the front, we’d be dead.”

The quake hit during Chile’s summer vacation, which left thousands of Chileans stranded overseas. There were frantic scenes at airports throughout the region as the closing of the damaged Santiago airport prompted airlines to cancel or reroute flights away from the Chilean capital.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had a previously scheduled visit to Chile this week as part of a tour of Latin America, is going ahead with the stop despite the quake. Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to meet with both Ms. Bachelet, who leaves office this month, and her successor, President-elect Sebastián Piñera.

Reporting was contributed by Charles Newbery from Buenos Aires; Aaron Nelsen and Pascale Bonnefoy from Santiago, Chile; Catrin Einhorn and Jack Healy from New York; and Mark McDonald from Hong Kong.
Thanks to Brenda J. Elliott at RBO for supplying photographs of the mysterious statues on Easter Island (also called Te Pito o Te Henua, 'The Center of the World’) and for thinking of them to evoke the far-sightedness of the Divine in the affairs of humans.
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