Aftershocks Shake Chile as Troops Seek to Keep Order

March 1st, 2010 by

LIMA, Peru (nytimes)— Amid a rising death toll and isolated outbreaks of looting, three aftershocks struck Chile on Monday morning as rescue efforts continued in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the country on Saturday.

President Michelle Bachelet said Sunday that the death toll had reached 708 and was likely to rise. She also issued an order that will send soldiers into the streets in the worst-affected areas to both keep order and speed the distribution of aid.

She called the magnitude-8.8 earthquake “an emergency unparalleled in the history of Chile.”

The police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who forced their way into shuttered shops in the southern city of Concepción, which was devastated. 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.

Her aides also called on residents not to hoard gas or food, both of which were being bought up in huge amounts by residents fearful of shortages.

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 from the rubble in Santiago, the capital, after hearing him yell out, “Julio, help me!” — the search for survivors was frustratingly slow.

”It’s very slow, dangerous work, because on top of it all, it’s still shaking there,” said Victoria Viteri, a spokeswoman with the national emergency office in Santiago, referring to rescue efforts in the country’s hardest-hit areas.

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.

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.

The first of the three temblors on Monday 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 Valparaíiso.

Within the next 90 minutes, two more shocks hit the Maule region, south of Santiago. The first registered 4.9, and the second, with an epicenter offshore, was recorded at 5.3.

In Maipú, outside Santiago, the authorities inspected an apartment building, found it relatively stable and allowed residents half an hour each to hustle inside and remove any personal belongings, local media reported. At another building nearby, however, the damages were considered too severe and the city told residents to stay out.

The National Office of Emergency raised the number of displaced people on Sunday to 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, 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 of 708, took place in the Maule region, which is the country’s leading wine-growing area along the coast, followed by Bío-Bío, where at least 64 people died. The military will take 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. Many people huddled by fires and slept outside Saturday night out of fear that more buildings would collapse.

Responding to outbreaks of looting in Concepción, the mayor, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, had earlier called on national officials to bring in the military to keep the tense situation from spinning out of control. She said it was not just desperate people who were cleaning out the stores but opportunists who were trying to enrich themselves.

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, the scale of the damage from Chile’s significantly more powerful earthquake was nowhere near that suffered 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. “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, will go 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.


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