From Haiti to Chile and back again

By Andreas Lexer

After having spent four weeks in Haiti and one week in Chile following earthquakes in each country, the two emergencies offer important lessons in comparison.

In Haiti, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on 12 January has caused severe damage. All that remains of the Cathedral are a few broken walls. The Presidential Palace is down, government ministries do not exist anymore.

Thousands of houses collapsed. They look like someone has smashed the top of a cake with the flat of a hand.

Hundreds of thousands of people were left buried under the rubble. Estimates speak about at least 200,000 thousand dead people in Haiti, but the figure could be much higher.

Chile was shaken on 27 February by an 8.8 magnitude quake. In terms of energy released, the Chile quake was 501 times stronger than the one in Haiti. However, in Chile, the death toll hardly reached a thousand people.

This is partly due to preparation. In 1960, the strongest ever measured earthquake of 9.5 magnitude struck the country, causing tsunamis. Some 5.000 people died. People still remember those tragic days.

“We have got a tsunami culture in this country, people know when to run”, says Juan Precht, Relief Coordinator of Caritas Chile.

“Chile has always been considered Latin America’s most earthquake-ready country. Its children learn to run for cover during quake drills before learning to read. Its building codes are robust. Its disaster manual is thick, laying out all the scenarios for the temblors that are a regular part of life”, said Alexei Barrionuevo in the New York Times.

The Chileans stuck to the manual and ran for cover immediately after the earthquake. Twenty minutes later the waves rolled in.

Most of the damage was done on the coastline, not by the quake but by the tsunamis it generated. Up to five waves struck the cities there and have washed away everything into the sea. In Dichato, no house is standing anymore, metres of mud and wood fill the streets and houses were carried as far as 600 metres inland.

For a thousand kilometres along the coast the tsunami has caused severe devastation in Chile with 1.5 million homeless – even worse than in Haiti where an estimated 1.2 million people have lost their houses.

But because people were prepare, the loss of life was much lover.

Houses are built in Chile on strict guidelines to make them more resistant. Where houses were built with Adobe, however, the quake caused a lot of damage. I spent two days in the city of Talca, 300.000 inhabitants. Talca has probably suffered most from the quake. Big parts of the city centre actually look like the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince with collapsed houses, fallen walls, a lot of rubble in the streets.

In Haiti, however, the last severe earthquake hit the country 240 years ago, Port au Prince was wiped out then as it was in January. And like then people were as unprepared as ever. They were surprised by the quake that nobody expected.

In both countries help was soon on the way.

Even though there is a lot of poverty in Chile, the country is better developed. The political and civil structures were not harmed by the quake, bulldozers, search and rescue teams, air lifts and logistics were immediately available.

There was sufficient food in the country for all those in need. Although the Chilean government for international help, such as generators, water filtration equipment and field hospitals, they were and will be able to handle most of the emergency relief on their own. This is due to the help of thousands of volunteers, students or affected people, who help wrap and distribute food kits.

After only a few days Caritas had handed out food to 104.000 families. Assessment of who will be eligible to transitional shelter was far advanced two weeks after the quake. A first prototype – a two bedroom wooden houses – has already been built.

Haiti is one the poorest countries in the world with weak government structures at every level. There is no army to provide manpower or structure. Great parts of the political management was made impossible by the loss of its infrastructure. There were far too few bulldozers and people were never trained how to handle disaster situations.

People were starving even before the earthquake, there was not enough food within the country to hand out to the poorest and most affected, let alone tents or tarps. Water filtration on a big scale did not exist, medical supply for the hundreds of thousands of wounded people, 10.000 of them amputees, was weak. Additionally you could feel that people were too traumatised in the first days and weeks after 12 January.

In Haiti, international organisations had to import structures and goods whereas in Chile most of this was provided by the country itself. This fact is true until today. That is the reason why the big international focus is still drawn to Haiti. Chile will need some financial support, at the end of the day the country will be able to help itself. Haiti on the other hand would not be able to deal with the aftermath of the disaster without the help of international organisations. This state will continue for a long period of time.

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Filed under Chile, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Haiti, Emergency in Chile, Haiti, Latin America

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