Chile's Edge Over Haiti When It Comes To Quakes

Chile was hit by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded more than a week ago. Chile's strict building code, its long experience with earthquakes, its wealth and resources have all allowed it to cope well with a quake that could have devastated the country. Many have noticed the differences between Chile and Haiti's quake in January.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many people noticed a difference between the way an earthquake affected Haiti and the way another earthquake affected Chile. That difference is especially vivid to our correspondent Jason Beaubien. He walked the streets of Port-au-Prince in the days after the first earthquake, and now he's in Santiago, Chile, looking at the damage from the second. He reports, this morning, on why Chile suffered less damage and is responding more quickly.

(Soundbite of music and crowd)

JASON BEAUBIEN: Over the weekend, there were benefit concerts all across Santiago. To aid the earthquake relief effort, college and high school students stood outside subway stations with white buckets, collecting money for the reconstruction. Donation centers popped up across the capital where people could bring clothes, food, diapers to be delivered to the devastated in the south.

(Soundbite of TV program)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: And on the television, a hastily organized but slick telethon called "Chile Helps Chile" urged viewers to give cash to some of the largest charities in the country. The telethon featured some of the country's top artists, business leaders and politicians. Chilean writer Isabel Allende brought a check for half a million dollars.

Ms. ISABEL ALLENDE (Writer): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I don't think we've seen a catastrophe of this magnitude, Allende said, but at the same time it brings out the best in us - courage, solidarity, generosity, and I hope too, joy.

The telethon's goal was to raise $30 million, and it brought in twice that.

Chile has learned to live with earthquakes. Patricio Gross(ph), the head of the National Association of Architects, says the most important element in surviving along a fault line is strict building codes.

Mr. PATRICIO GROSS (National Association of Architects): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The construction regulations in Chile, Gross says, require that a building must be able to resist an earthquake of up to 8.8 in magnitude.

Mr. GROSS: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He says the building can have cracks and fissures, but it must remain standing so the people can get out.

The contrasts between Chile and Haiti are incredibly stark. According to International Monetary Fund, Chile has the highest per capita income in Latin America; Haiti has the lowest. Despite the Chilean quake being far more powerful than the one off Port-au-Prince, the death toll here could remain at just a few hundred, while more than 200,000 died in Haiti.

Mr. GROSS: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Gross says he can't call earthquakes natural disasters. To him, they're human disasters that can be mitigated through proper seismic design and construction. The power of the quake, by the time it hit Santiago, was roughly a magnitude eight. Most of the modern buildings withstood the shaking with very little damage. Haiti's buildings, on the other hand, were completely unprepared for the January 12 quake there.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

BEAUBIEN: And when it comes to responding to disasters - whether they're human or natural - Chile has an established national emergency office. It's known by its Spanish initials, ONEMI. Carmen Fernandez is the chain-smoking, haggard-looking director of the agency.

Ms. CARMEN FERNANDEZ (Director, ONEMI): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Fernandez has just gotten a call from President Michelle Bachelet, who wants to know the latest about a 6.3 magnitude quake that hit minutes earlier in the north of Chile. The agency practices for disasters and has detailed national plans for how to cope with catastrophes.

Ms. FERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Fernandez says that immediately after the February 27 quake, ONEMI launched an assistance program for the worst hit areas. But as they were analyzing what the needs would be for food, shelter, medical care, the social unrest began in the city of Concepcion. She says even the ONEMI warehouse was looted. Fernandez and ONEMI have come under harsh criticism here for moving too slowly in the wake of the disaster.

It might not have been as fast as many Chileans would have liked, but within days, the government was moving relief supplies and personnel into the devastated areas of the south. This is something the international community struggled to do in the first weeks in Haiti.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Santiago.

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