Chile: "a successful earthquake"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

by Sean Hawkey

Six months ago a massive earthquake hit Chile, it was 8.8 on the Moment magnitude scale, much bigger than the 7.2 earthquake that devasted Haiti the previous month. It released about 500 times the amount of energy released by the quake in Haiti where 230,000 people died. But only 521 people died in Chile.

Michel Cartes, architect working on the ACT response in Chile tells us why it was a "successful earthquake".

There are important reasons why there were relatively few deaths in Chile: the epicentre was closer to a densely populated area in Haiti, and on softer ground that carried more deadly force of the earthquake.

But "there were also social and human reasons that explain why relatively far fewer people died in Chile".

Put simply, "Chile was much better prepared" says Cartes.

Building regulations saved lives
"We say that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do” explains Cartes. "A big part of preparation for earthquakes is in building regulations, controlling the safety of buildings".

"Chile has good building codes and most buildings are built to high standards. Plans, calculations and buildings are inspected. So when earthquakes come we are ready for them, and the buildings sway the way they are designed to, which is to allow the people to escape".

"The buildings were damaged and will have to be demolished, but in most cases they didn’t collapse" says Cartes "that's why we had a relatively successful earthquake compared to Haiti".

Haiti has effectively no building codes: most buildings are built without engineers, regulations or inspections. Even public buildings like hospitals and schools, and the Presidential Palace, simply crumbled. 13 of the 15 government ministry buildings collapsed.

No building regulations, no engineering and no inspection caused death, and will cause death in the future. But a lot of building will continue in this way in Haiti because it is the poorest country in Latin America. Chile on the other hand is the richest country in Latin America.

Earthquake preparedness and drills saved lives
Chile is quite used to seismic activity, Haiti was not. There was no living Haitian who had experienced an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, people didn’t know what to do, they panicked.

"It's not like that in Chile" says Cartes, "people in Chile are brought up with earthquake drills for evacuation and protection. When the earthquake struck people got under doorframes and away from shattering windows".

Tsunami consciousness and distrust of official announcements saved lives
Most of the people who died in Chile died because of the tsunami. The Chilean earthquake launched three big waves. When the first hit the Chilean coast it was an eight metre wall of water travelling at around 500 miles an hour, the speed of an airliner.

People who live by Chile’s long coast, fishing communities, are conscious of the risk of tsunamis, and know that they follow earthquakes. They saved themselves by evacuating.

The Chilean President, based on completely erroneous information from the Chilean military, announced on radio and television that there was not going to be a tsunami, and that people could return to their houses. But distrust of this announcement among the fishing communities saved a great many lives, they left their houses and went to higher ground and stayed there. "Most of the people who died in the tsunami were tourists" explains Cartes, they were visitors who didn’t have a great awareness or fear of the risks of tsunami.

ACT and disaster risk reduction
Disaster Risk Reduction activities form a major part of ACT Alliance’s work in areas of risk. Participatory vulnerability assessments help communities to prepare to reduce vulnerabilities, to prepare for disasters and to prevent disasters. Long-term development work aims to make communities more resilient to disasters when they do happen.

ACT members Centro Ecuménico Diego de Medellin and FASIC are members of the Inter-eclesial Committee for Emergencies in Chile along with their long-term partners SEPADE, EPES and IELCH. Michel Cartes, quoted here, is working with SEPADE.