More Than 700 Die In Chile Earthquake

Chile's president called Saturday's earthquake a "catastrophe of unthinkable magnitude," and said the country will accept aid offers. The death toll has surpassed 700. Eben Harrell, a London-based reporter for Time magazine, was in Santiago when the quake hit. He tells Renee Montagne there are pockets of devastation in Santiago.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

We begin this part of the program with news on the earthquake in Chile. As of this morning, the death toll has risen to over 700. Chilean Senator, Evelyn Mathei, says the destruction could've been much worse.

Ms. EVELYN MATHEI: But still, it was so violent that many things did break down. And so it's very difficult to get to the people, to get them water and get them food, and to get them medication. Many hospitals are, you know, on the ground. So, it's ghastly.

MONTAGNE: Senator Mathei of Chile.

Eben Harrell is a London based reporter for Time Magazine. He was in Chile's capital, Santiago, when the quake hit, and he joined us on the line. Good morning.

Mr. EBEN HARRELL (Reporter, Time Magazine): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Give us a brief description of what Santiago looks like after the earthquake. You walked around, you saw some things, what comes to mind this morning?

Mr. HARRELL: Santiago after the earthquake, looks very similar to Santiago before the earthquake. There are pockets of devastation, but they tend to be the historical buildings. Many of these old buildings have what I would describe as just sort of a ring of dandruff around their bases from crumbling facades. So its interesting to move between kind of shiny, untouched buildings to buildings that obviously were built before we had figured out how to handle these kind of powerful earthquakes.

MONTAGNE: I suppose, though, because weve just been through the horror in Haiti, its surprising to see how orderly things seem to have been in Chile, generally speaking. Although, you know, Santiago wasnt so badly hit, what do you know about the rest of the country?

Mr. HARRELL: Well, I think its surprising only to outsiders. The first thing that the U.S. Ambassador, Paul Simons, told me when we met after the incident -he said this is not a Haiti situation. There are pockets of extreme devastation, but they have been acknowledged and the government has what seems to be a quick and methodical way - identified problems and identified what help it would need. This country was one of the first responders to the Haiti earthquake itself. In fact, I have tried to get in touch with some of the leading experts on disaster preparedness and earthquake response, and Im finding difficult to reach people, not because the phones are difficult here, but they are difficult in Haiti, where they all are, advising the Haitians on how to rebuild after the earthquake.

MONTAGNE: Now, we are, though, hearing - there have been reports of looting in the second largest city ,and I think the hardest hit city, Concepcion, people taking at least things like food and water and the basics.

Mr. HARRELL: Yes, I havent been there, but I did see some footage of an electronic store, I think, as well. So theres always a minority. What I remember on the evening of the earthquake was everyone was calm and helpful, and that sort of sense of camaraderie has continued, at least here in the capital. Obviously things change when populations are put under increased strain, and I think with water running low, basic supplies running low in Concepcion, I think they are starting to see some of the effects of that.

MONTAGNE: There has been much talk about this over the weekend. But just remind us, briefly, the hundreds of deaths - and it's growing there in Chile, you know, a terrible, terrible toll - but why has it with an earthquake that big and much bigger than the one in Haiti? What are the elements that are different in those two countries, that make it less devastating there?

Mr. HARRELL: I was in Santiago reporting a different story, and I was speaking to the head of the civilian nuclear authority, and he was explaining to me -this was before, even, the earthquake hit - that we make all of our decisions in Chile based on the knowledge that we live on unstable grounds, that we have decided to build our major cities on earthquake faults. Most of the engineering, etcetera, is always done with that in the back of their mind.

Im staying in area with many high rises, and its amazing to watch how they sway almost like mechanical metronomes. They've obviously been designed to absorb these sort of forces, because weve been having Richter scale six aftershocks regularly, which are considerable earthquakes themselves, and each time it rolls through, Im astounded again, by the feats of engineering that buildings can absorb that kind of energy.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. HARRELL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Eben Harrell of Time Magazine speaking to us from Santiago, Chile. And you can see his reporting at Time.com plus full coverage of the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti at npr.org.

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