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Tuesday, March 2

Fears of Pinochet's ghost slow Chilean government's response to earthquake, setting off spiraling crises; echoes of Hurricane Katrina disaster

7:50 AM ET UPDATE
Ah! I see Chile's government is using the little gray cells. Better late than never. The Beeb reports today: "International aid has started to arrive, four days after the huge earthquake in Chile. The authorities are setting up an air bridge to fly supplies from the capital, Santiago, to Concepción, the city worst hit, where there is still no electricity and little water."
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A trio of reports conveys a picture of politics gone berserk and the cost to modern societies, which are only as a strong as their response to natural disasters. The good news for Chileans, as we saw in the response of Haitians to their country's historic earthquake, is the human capacity to act sensibly without government help. Yet the tale of Chile's post-earthquake crisis is also a warning that the capacity is atrophying, leaving societies vulnerable to the rule of the mob in the absence of massive government intervention during a crisis.

(See the third report, from the Los Angeles Times, for information on U.S. aid to Chile.)

I'll start with an excerpt from Jon Lee Anderson's insightful March 1 report, Chile’s Test for the New Yorker blog, which includes emails from a half-dozen Chilean friends. The report begins with an overview of the situation in Chile:
Two days on, the extent of the destruction caused by the earthquake in Chile is becoming somewhat clearer. As many as two million of its seventeen million citizens have been affected; an estimated one and a half million homes damaged.

South of Santiago, the central region of the long, narrow country has been very badly hit; many of its Pacific coastal communities were ravaged by the tsunami that followed the quake, its towns and cities cut off because of extensive highway damage.

Hundreds of people are missing and feared swept out to sea.

Feeling isolated and desperate, people in Concepción, the country’s hard-hit second-largest city, and elsewhere have fended for themselves, looting shops and warehouses for food and water. Others, as generally happens in such disasters, have taken advantage of the breakdown in security to cart off consumer goods and luxury items like television sets.

Some Chileans blamed officials for issuing erroneous or insufficient warnings about the imminent tsunami risk, or of not dispatching aid with sufficient speed.

The chaos, in the most orderly and prosperous of Latin American countries, has provoked feelings of impotence and despair and, in some cases, the anger of some of its citizens who, as I wrote Saturday, had relatively high expectations regarding their government’s competence.[...]
Next, I'll quote extensively from the Wall Street Journal report, filed March 1, 11:36 PM EST, Fires, Looting Plague Quake-Battered City. The report details the struggles of Concepción's volunteer firefighters and how private citizens have organized to guard their neighborhoods against looters. With a population of almost a million people, Concepción is Chile's second-largest city, an industrial hub, and the capital of the quake-battered Bío Bío region. Yet a modern, thriving city was reduced to a primitive state because the government failed to act in timely manner out of fear of political fallout if troops were used to keep order. By the time the government did act, chaos had broken out and the troops called up were too few to restore order. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
CONCEPCIÓN, Chile — Fires raged as night fell across Chile's second-largest city Monday, with an exhausted all-volunteer force of firefighters pushing itself to the limit since a deadly quake struck the Andean nation nearly three days ago.

[...]

Army troops backed by armored military vehicles enforced a curfew from 8 p.m. Monday until noon Tuesday, a show of force designed to stop the rampant looting that gripped the city during the day.

Stores and supermarkets were frequently set ablaze after being ransacked.

The firefighters have worked nearly nonstop since the 8.8-magnitude temblor struck. "Since the earthquake, this has been a new and undesirable experience for me," said Concepción fire chief Marcelo Plaza, a chemical engineer by trade. "This is the worst thing I've ever seen."

The 400-strong Concepción force has fought at least 10 major fires since the quake, and undertaken search-and-rescue missions at the more than 50 collapsed buildings. Currently, rescue work has focused on a 15-story building that tipped onto its side. The work was delicate, with rescuers cutting small holes through the jagged metal and twisted concrete in an attempt to find survivors.

A family waiting for word of trapped loved ones wailed in the darkness after receiving bad news.

So far, 723 are confirmed dead in Chile. But in Concepción, the natural disaster has become accompanied by a widespread breakdown of social order.

Police officers and soldiers seemed overwhelmed earlier in the day, chasing away looters from one area only to have an outbreak somewhere else. Typically, the thieves would return to the location only minutes after police left.

A group of 20 police officers in riot gear fired tear gas into the Santa Isabel supermarket as the crowd of looters swelled to more than 150. Around the corner, an aluminum awning covering the windows of a department store was torn away. A mass of people surged forward to enter the store, later walking away with small appliances and clothes.

One of the looters set fire to the department store, La Polar, and the blaze quickly built into a roaring inferno that turned into one of the city's largest post-earthquake fires. Smoked belched from underneath the store's aluminum siding, sending thick plumes of smoke skyward as firefighters already black with soot from previous battles arrived on the scene.

"We are exhausted," one firefighter said, wiping the grime and sweat from his forehead. "But we're going to have to keep at it for days."

The firefighters combat fatigue by taking breaks and visiting their families before returning to duty.

"This is a vocation for us because we all have different day jobs," Mr. Plaza, the fire chief, said. "We are here doing this because this is what we love to do."

Late Monday, the La Polar blaze was brought under control. A bit of good luck averted a greater tragedy as a firewall between La Polar and the Santa Isabel supermarket kept the fire from spreading to other buildings on the tightly packed block.

Meanwhile, smoke was billowing from a fresh blaze in the night sky a few blocks away. Firefighters said another supermarket had been set ablaze.

People in some parts of the city booed the looters from afar, yelling "thieves" and "shame on you." Some residents banded together to protect what was left of their shattered neighborhoods, trying to ward off roving packs of looters.

Andres Coronado joined with his neighbors in the Pedro de Valdivia Bajo neighborhood of Concepción after they saw the situation spiraling out of control. They milled around a street covered in bricks and stone—the debris of somebody's home—and made use of a small fire to keep warm. They vowed to stay at their posts all night.

"There aren't enough of them," Mr. Coronado said of the police and soldiers in Concepción. "The situation is out of their hands right now, so we organized at midday."

Piles of used tires were laid out on top of the rubble, a line of defense if one of the roving packs from a rival neighborhood decided to cause trouble. A similar pattern was repeated in other battered working-class neighborhoods.

Many residents complained that they survived the earthquake only to face organized violence. "It was only an earthquake and now this. Now, we have to worry about people coming into our neighborhoods," a man said at one neighborhood checkpoint. [...] Report filed by ANTHONY ESPOSITO, SERGIO ABARCA And JEFF FICK for the Wall Street Journal with additional reporting by Carolina Pica in Santiago.
Finally, the following report from the Los Angeles Times, which details the emergencies that spiraled from the national government's all-too-political response to the crisis. The situation evokes the Bush administation's disastrous attempt in 2005 to keep 'hands off' the Louisana state government's authority while the massive Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans.
Chile scrambles to distribute aid, quell disorder

Looting surges as desperate citizens say they lack any services. President Bachelet, slow to seek international aid, has asked for help.

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2010, 5:38 p.m.

Reporting from Mexico City and Constitucion, Chile - Looting spread in earthquake-leveled parts of Chile on Monday even as government troops deployed in armored vehicles and on horseback to restore order and protect shipments of food and water. Scores of people were arrested for violating an overnight curfew.

With the death toll creeping higher, Chile continued to reel from Saturday's massive magnitude 8.8 quake, one of the strongest on record. At least 723 people were killed, the government said, and many remained missing.

Numerous oceanfront towns, like Lloca, Dichato and Constitucion, were devastated first by the quake and then, minutes later, by a tsunami, a kind of seismic coup de grace. Little or no help had reached these sites, residents said.

"We need food! We need water!" said a beleaguered Cesar Arrellano, a municipal comptroller in Constitucion who received unrelenting reports of damage, death and the desperate need for help.

Chile's second-largest city, Concepcion, seemed to be suffering the brunt of post-disaster chaos. Looters raided a firehouse in search for water and gasoline, which are in short supply; others later torched a shopping center.

Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe said looters were moving in organized packs and attacking firefighters and city workers attempting to distribute water.

"Our firefighters, our personnel, don't want to keep doing this work in these circumstances," she said. "If a bigger contingent [of soldiers] isn't sent here quickly, the people will begin to take the law into their own hands."

Fire raged in a downtown Concepcion shopping mall. A radio reporter said she saw people in a vehicle toss a Molotov cocktail into the collection of stores just before the fire erupted. Firefighters could do nothing: They had no water. The building, looted earlier in the day, was collapsing under the flames.

President Michelle Bachelet imposed emergency decrees, including putting the army in charge of hard-hit areas, measures not taken in 20 years.

The government promised to distribute food, water and other essential supplies on Monday in Concepcion and other communities.

But aid seemed arrive in trickles, slowed by mangled roads, collapsed bridges and the lack of electricity. A small plane bringing aid to Concepcion crashed Monday, killing all six people on board.

Bachelet called on power companies to restore energy to hospitals and clinics and urged local authorities to quickly identify and bury bodies.

In Constitucion, caskets were stacked in the town gym that had been converted into a morgue.

Bachelet declared a 30-day state of emergency for the coastal states of Bio Bio and Maule, sent in the army and slapped an overnight curfew on major cities in the region.

It was the first time a government has taken action to suspend some civil rights since democracy was restored to Chile in 1990.

Using the army for public security is still a sensitive subject in a country that endured nearly two decades of military dictatorship before the 1990 ouster of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's regime.

The possibility of a "social explosion" quickly emerged as the government's "worst fear," the leading Chilean newspaper El Mercurio reported, noting the emergency decree was agreed to only after intense debate because of its potential symbolism.

"Coordination between civilian and military authorities is functioning correctly," government spokeswoman Pilar Armanet said.

"We are attempting to normalize basic services, with the difficulties that implies."

In a sign of the government's alarm over deteriorating conditions, Defense Minister Francisco Vidal announced that the curfew imposed for Concepcion and its surroundings would be lengthened to begin Monday night at 8 and extend to noon Tuesday.

Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende sought to calm the public amid reports of roving mobs and vigilantes in suburbs around Concepcion.

"Undoubtedly we can't have the military on every corner, but public order is in the hands of the armed forces and you must trust in that," he said.

In Concepcion, rescue efforts centered on a 15-story apartment building that collapsed onto its side.

Rescue workers equipped with search dogs and architectural blueprints sliced through concrete and punched triangular holes into the side of the building in hopes of finding survivors.

On Sunday, eight bodies and about two dozen survivors were pulled out, but many people were believed trapped.

Early Monday, fire brigade commander Juan Carlos Subercaseaux reported signs of life on what had been the building's sixth floor.

"We heard knocking and some glass being broken," Subercaseaux told reporters at the site.

By afternoon, another body had been recovered and rescuers continued the search for survivors.

In Santiago, the capital, life crept slowly back to normal Monday, with many people driving to work but also with long lines at supermarkets and gasoline stations. The start of school after the Southern Hemisphere's summer vacation was postponed until next week.

Slow to ask for help, Bachelet has said she would welcome international aid.

The United Nations said Monday that it would rush deliveries, and Argentina announced that it was sending a field hospital and water treatment supplies.

In Washington, U.S. officials said Monday that Chile has made modest requests of the United States so far, leaving it unclear whether the Obama administration would mount a major effort for the earthquake-stricken country, as it has for Haiti and others.

Philip J. Crowley, the State Department's chief spokesman, said the United States has so far been asked to contribute a field hospital, communications equipment and water filtration equipment.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will arrive in Santiago Tuesday as part of a five-nation Latin America tour, will bring satellite equipment.

Crowley said the United States "will stand ready to support them in any way." But he said the Chileans are well prepared and are assessing how much outside help they need.

The United States has not formed a task force to deal with the emergency, as it did quickly with the earthquake in Haiti, Crowley said. American search and rescue teams from Los Angeles and Fairfax County, Va., are on standby but haven't been asked to help, he said.

U.S. officials said they sent the Chilean government a 10-page "grocery list" of available items, services and workers, including American cardiologists, orthopedists and anesthesiologists.
See also March 1 Pundita post, Chile's earthquake: signs and portents for humankind, which includes a report on the collapse of the 15-story apartment building mentioned above.
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