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Earth movers

Disaster | The toll could have been much worse, but earthquakes in Chile and Turkey have left many in need

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

Not long after returning from earthquake-ravaged Haiti, aid worker Paula Saez faced a new disaster: a massive earthquake in her native Chile. The 8.8-magnitude quake that wracked southern Chile in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 27 released 500 times more energy than the Haiti quake and became the fifth-strongest earthquake ever recorded.

Within nine days, two more high-magnitude earthquakes struck halfway around the world: A 6.4-magnitude quake hit Taiwan on March 4. The nation reported no deaths. A 6.0-magnitude quake struck four days later in Turkey, killing at least 51 people.

The Chilean death toll, though grievous, appeared far less than the estimated 200,000 deaths in Haiti: Chilean officials initially estimated more than 800 deaths, but the interior ministry reduced that figure to nearly 500 by March 8.

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Coastal towns in the Maule region near the epicenter appeared hardest hit, with a quake-induced tsunami adding to the devastation. Saez, a worker with the Christian relief group World Vision, reported the damage in Coliumo: The city 70 miles north of the hard-hit urban area of Concepcion "totally disappeared," she said. A wall of water also hit nearby Dichato, destroying the fishing and tourist town. Saez reported boats sitting in the middle of the city, and other parts of town swept away: "The earthquake damaged some things, but the sea took everything away."

For others, homes remained in their places, but the damage was severe: Authorities estimated some 500,000 people were left homeless. The quake shook the earth all the way to the capital city of Santiago, causing power outages, broken roads, and collapsed infrastructure that complicated aid delivery. Researchers said the quake was so powerful, the ground under the city of Concepcion moved at least 10 feet west.

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet initially called for little outside aid to one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, but later she pleaded for help with shelter, telling a local television station: "We are looking to buy emergency temporary housing from Argentina and Brazil because there is simply not enough in Chile." Bachelet estimated reconstruction could take three to four years and cost billions of dollars.

As the needs remained acute, the U.S. military airlifted supplies to Chile and planned to send dozens of doctors to the badly hit city of Angol, southwest of Concepcion. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention sent assessment teams to plan relief efforts, and reported Chilean Baptist churches were already delivering aid. World Vision staffers said they began distributing blankets and water after the quake and established a children's center in Dichato. The group said it planned to deliver relief supplies to some 25,000 people. Workers reported that in some coastal towns supplies were running dangerously low.

Still, the horrible damage came with at least one silver lining: It could have been much worse. An off-shore epicenter, smaller population centers, and better building standards preserved the country from the magnitude of damage that struck Haiti (see "The search for miracles").

Taiwan escaped major damage in its March 4 earthquake as well, but the damage in Turkey was more severe: The quake hit at least five villages in a rural area filled with mud-brick buildings that crumbled when the earth moved. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the 51 casualties could have been prevented with better building standards, and he vowed to make changes. Still, changes won't be easy, he said: "Unfortunately, houses made of sun-dried brick constitute the architecture in the region."

Paul Earle, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, agrees that poor construction and overcrowding have made recent disasters worse: "The standard mantra is earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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