Chile steps up search for earthquake victims

Chilean rescue crews fanned out with sniffer dogs on Wednesday around quake-ravaged cities and villages, some still hoping to find survivors and others facing the daunting task of recovering bodies buried under mountains of rubble.

Four days after the 8,8-magnitude earthquake rocked south-central Chile and killed nearly 800 people, police and troops managed to quell the looting and violence that brought chaos to the hard-hit city of Concepción, 115km south-east of the epicentre.

An 18-hour nightly curfew remained in place in Concepción, one of a handful of cities and villages where about 7 000 soldiers were patrolling the streets to keep order and ensure that food and water were properly distributed.

Military trucks and helicopters in a base in the quake-hit city of Talca set off with food and water for victims, while rescue crews stepped up the search in towns from Concepción further north to Constitucion for any survivors trapped in the debris.

At dawn, firemen with hammers and cranes searched for people trapped in a building that had collapsed in Concepción.

So far, 795 people have been confirmed dead, either killed by one of the world’s biggest earthquakes in a century, or by the tsunami it triggered along Chile’s coastline.

The death toll is likely to rise, with some reports putting the number of missing as high as 500 in Constitucion alone.

The city, with a population of nearly 40 000, accounts for nearly half the official death toll and was one of several coastal towns nearly wiped out by the quake and tsunamis.

Chilean emergency officials and the military blamed each other for not clearly warning coastal villages of tsunamis after the quake.

Officially, the government puts the number of missing at 19, based on specific cases reported to the police. But officials acknowledge the figure could be much higher.

With looting now largely under control, authorities dispatched crews with dogs trained to locate the dead, to start the grim task of pulling bodies from the rubble.

Many Chileans complained that scores of deaths could have been avoided had the government responded more decisively to the quake, which set off a tsunami a few hours later that killed many along the coastline.

The government of President Michelle Bachelet has acknowledged that rescue efforts have been slow, in part because of mangled roads, downed bridges and power cuts. But officials also misjudged the extent of the damage, initially declining offers for international aid.

During a brief visit, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered 20 satellite phones to help in relief efforts and pledged more aid.
Bachelet also reached out to other countries, asking for desalination plants and power generators.

The disaster hit Chile, the world’s leading copper producer and Latin America’s most stable economy, just as it was emerging from a recession caused by the global economic downturn.

Some analysts estimate the damage could cost Chile up to $30-billion, or about 15% of its gross domestic product.

But Bachelet stressed it is too early to quantify the damage while the focus remains on relief efforts.

The disaster poses a daunting challenge for billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, who will be sworn in as Chile’s next president on March 11.

Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to an average of 6% a year and create a million new jobs. He said the quake had not altered his economic goals.—Reuters

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