Chile quake-area still shaking

Strong aftershocks rattled south-central Chile on Friday, panicking residents nearly a week after one of the most powerful earthquakes on record devastated coastal towns and killed hundreds of people.

The government of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, facing criticism for its slow response to the quake, said it was revising the death toll after authorities mistakenly tallied scores of missing people who later turned up alive.

Officials said they had now identified 452 victims. They did not give a number for unidentified bodies or missing people and backed off a previous figure of more than 800 deaths.

Many people who survived the 8,8-magnitude quake on February 27 were killed hours later by a massive tsunami, outraging Chileans who say there was no warning the waves were coming.

The Chilean Navy acknowledged there was a breakdown in its tsunami-alert system and on Friday it fired the head of the agency in charge of issuing catastrophe warnings.

In ravaged Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city, some people ran out of their houses or jumped out of the vehicles where they had been sleeping since the quake as seven intense aftershocks shook the area on Friday.

The strongest of the aftershocks was 6,6 in magnitude.

“Some chunks of buildings that were already in bad condition fell but nothing significant,” the top government official in quake-hit Bio Bio region told local radio.

The February 27 quake and the giant waves destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, wrecked bridges and roads and cracked modern buildings in half in the capital, Santiago.

The disaster also wreaked havoc on some of Chile’s famous wineries, spilling millions of litres of wine from cracked barrels, and briefly shut down some of the world’s richest copper mines.

The navy said there was no risk of tsunamis from the new aftershocks. People did not stray too far into the streets of Concepción because the army had imposed a curfew until midday to control sporadic looting.

“This was the strongest [aftershock] yet.
As soon as I felt it, I thought ‘Here we go again’,” said Cristian Ruiz (38) who works in the fishing industry in Concepción.

Govt criticised
The confusion over the death toll prompted harsh criticism of Chile’s National Emergency Office, known as Onemi, which President-elect Sebastian Pinera has pledged to overhaul.

In a blog posted on the daily El Mercurio website, the former head of Onemi, Alberto Maturana, called the agency’s handling of the disaster “a comedy of errors”.

“The agency has no validity in public opinion, when it is supposed to be the most credible,” he said.

The doubts over the death toll are likely to persist because an undetermined number of victims were washed out to sea in the tsunamis and some bodies may never be recovered.

“The number of disappeared is very difficult to determine,” said Patricio Bustos, a government forensics specialist in Talca, a city in central Chile that was hit hard by the quake. “It can take a very long time.”

In Concepción, looting was mostly under control as hundreds of troops patrolled the streets and handed out food and water. Long lines formed at one of the few grocery stores finally opened to customers.

In Dichato, a small town just north of Concepcion, two large ships that were washed ashore by the tsunami sat in a field 2km from the damaged coastline.

After meeting Bachelet on Friday in Santiago, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged $10-million and other aid supplies for the relief effort.

Ban is also scheduled to tour some of the quake areas and meet Pinera, who will take office on March 11 in a swearing-in ceremony that will be toned down because of the disaster.

Chile’s biggest copper mines were mostly spared by the quake but its top two oil refineries were hit hard and are still offline, forcing the country to boost fuel imports. Other key industries such as pulp, fishing and fruit also took a hit.

The government has shied away from quantifying the damage, which according to one estimate could reach $30-billion, or about 15% of the gross domestic product of the world’s leading copper producer.

Finance Minister Andres Velasco said on Friday the quake will weigh heavily on the economy in the coming months but predicted the rebuilding effort would help drive a robust recovery in the long term, echoing a pledge from the incoming government.

“We are not only going to rebuild what was destroyed, we are going to rebuild it with better technology and with better procedures,” the silver-haired Pinera said on Friday, adding his government plans to revamp Chile’s catastrophe-alert system in hopes of limiting the death toll from future disasters.

With reconstruction likely to draw billions of dollars into Chile, financial markets are already pricing in the expected flood of inflows.

Chile’s peso gained more than 3% this week, while its main stock index rose on Friday for the second straight day. - Reuters

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