Notes on the Earthquake in Chile

Solidarity has been a major feature in this catastrophe

Published on 2 May 2010

Author(s): Arch-peace/Beatriz C. Maturana

Type:  Comment

All theatres have reopened and are offering their productions for free. The public is invited to attend theatres for a contribution, of any amount, to the reconstruction funds

8 March 2010. The earthquake in Chile and consecutive three tidal waves of between 10 to 20m height (accounts vary), affected an area approximately 800 km long. In this long and narrow country defined by extreme climate and geographic conditions (desert on the north and glaziers on its south), the area affected by the earthquake was by far the most populated. The extension is somewhere similar to the linear distance between Paris and Venice, or locally, between Melbourne and Sydney. However, in the case of Chile we need to consider that apart form the capital Santiago (with an approx. population of 5M) and the regional capital of Concepción (approx. 300,000), this extension includes many important cities varying in population sizes from small rural and coastal tourist towns, to medium size cities. Cities, such as the Port of Valparaiso and Talcahuano have approximately one quarter of a million people. The extent of the earthquake and tsunami that followed has no precedent in the recorded history of Chile. So far the death toll is at 452 people, but Chilean President Michelle Bachelet warned that this may continue to rise.

Solidarity has been a major feature in this catastrophe. A “Telethon” started 6 days after the earthquake and managed to double the initial target, reaching AU$65 million in financial donations. Numerous accounts of solidarity are starting to be told. For example, victims, who after the earthquake found refuge from the 3 consecutive tidal waves on the mountains around Constitución (one of the cities worst hit by this catastrophe), were given cooked meals by people from neighbouring towns who were, under the circumstances, better off. Looting was unforgivable, but also grossly exaggerated by the local media. Still, the country was shocked by the images of vandalism that according to some are evidence of something going wrong with ‘the pillars of society’, situation that some believe presents yet another challenge.

All theatres have reopened and are offering their productions for free. The public is invited to attend theatres for a contribution, of any amount, to the reconstruction funds (large gatherings were forbidden for a few days after the earthquake because of aftershocks). Secondary and tertiary students have enrolled as volunteers and are now assisting in the worst affected areas. In regards to our professions, the Chilean Ministry of Urbanism and Housing (MINVU), together with the Chilean Institute of Architects are also organising teams of professional volunteers. National and international architects are invited to register--although at this stage the focus is on national capacity.

Donations gathered from every city in Chile have arrived and continue to arrive to those in need—those in shelters (gymnasiums and schools) are receiving breakfast, lunch and dinner. A government lead employment program for recent graduates (offering 1 year paid jobs in remotes areas of Chile), is from now on focusing on the areas worst affected. Doctors, psychologists, architects and many others are working non stop to support traumatised communities. Immense examples of effort, sacrifice and solidarity give everyone the strength to get the country back on its feet. As always, the most affected are the poor.

Aftershocks are, by all measures, new earthquakes--these happen everyday some reaching 6.4 in the Richter scale Amidst a relative well organised emergency response, Santiago managed to be back on its feet in 48 hours, with electricity, communication and public transport (including the underground) restored. Although services in the country are 90-99% restored, unfor-tunately, some smaller towns and communities have experienced perceived or real abandonment. Yet, the coordination of efforts between the authorities, media, civil organisations and industry is nothing less than impressive. At organisational levels, these is the result of sophisticated strategies lead by the government and involving public and private enterprises, local authorities and the educational system.

"On a per-capita basis, Chile has more world-renowned seismologists and earthquake engineers than anywhere else," said Brian E Tucker.[1]

President Michelle Bachelet decreed 3 days of national mourning. She also gave an estimated at between $15bn to $30bn for the financial cost of this tragedy and confirmed that the reconstruction process will take 3 to 4 years.

Entire coastal towns have been erased. Added to the personal trauma, the collapse of sections of carefully preserved historic districts, that characterise most cities and towns in Chile, has robbed Chile of much of its cultural/architectural heritage. In Santiago, the popular and historical “Barrio Yungay” was one of the most affected. My friend from St Fernando (small city in a mainly agricultural province), lamented the damage of the city’s heritage, that she said included buildings that had undergone recent and costly restorations. Professor of architecture

Sebastian Gray expressed: Towns that had managed to dodge the forces of nature for hundreds of years were toppled or washed away. Beautiful old buildings of adobe and simple masonry are now gone forever. Saddened as I am by the loss of life and landmarks, I am scandalized by the few modern structures that crumbled, those spectacular exceptions you keep seeing on the TV news. The economic bonanza and development frenzy of the last decades have clearly allowed a degree of relaxation of the proud building standards of this country. (…)
For Chilean architects, this is the challenge of a lifetime: to restore beauty, to preserve history, to build sensibly.[2]

According to authorities, most high-rise buildings withstood the earthquake very well and this is due to strict seismic regulations. However, a few recently finished residential buildings were severely damaged. Among these, a 15 storey building (in Concepción) collapsed on its back. Expert rescue teams (recently returning from Haiti), worked for 7 days in an attempt to rescue people believed trapped inside this building.

Seismic building systems are designed to flex with the telluric movement instead of resisting it. This assists to preserve their structural integrity. However, non-structural infill bears the consequences of the flexing and may crack or collapse. It is the result of these building strategies which offer such a visually devastating panorama in some urban areas, but it has on the other hand prevented more deaths. Housing Minister, Patricia Poblete, reminded those affected that they are entitled to protection under the “Law of quality” (Ley de Calidad).[3] New buildings collapsing have by far been “spectacular exceptions”.[4] Yet, in a country fully aware of its seismic nature, these “exceptions” stand as evidence of a recent lax approach to societal priorities. Things may start to change and three days after the earthquake authorities were considering extending seismic regulations to include not only structural elements, but also finishes, lighting and non-structural walls.[5] In some regions up to 50% of the schools suffered some degree of damage. A number of hospitals are damaged beyond repair.

Sadly, Chile was/is celebrating its bicentenary of independence this year.[6] An important aspect of this celebration were/are many large and ambitious infrastructural and architectural projects planned to be inaugurated on 18 Sept 2010. The times ahead present some extraordinary opportunities for the professions of the built environment. This cannot only be measured in regard to the improvement and rigour of norms, design and technical matters. It is also an opportunity to sensibly approach the future of damaged heritage buildings, to improve and develop new skills to salvage what is left of the rich Chilean urban and architectural heritage.

Thanks also to my colleagues and friends in Chile Gabriela Sabadini Dorich, Fernando De Gregorio C. and Marisol Acevedo V. for their updates
(Beatriz C. Maturana)

1. Frank Bajak. “Chile was ready for quake, Haiti wasn’t”. Associated Press (AP), 27 February 2010.
2. Sebastian Gray. “Santiago Stands Firm”. New York Times, 2 March 2010.
3. “Ministra de Vivienda llama a propietarios a acogerse a Ley de Calidad por daños” (Minister call home owner to find protection for damages to their properties in the ‘Law of Quality’). El Mercurio, 3 March 2010.
4. Sebastian Gray. “Santiago Stands Firm”.
5. Lorena Guzmán H. “En Chile las terminaciones no están reguladas” (“In Chile finishes are not regulated”). El Mercurio, 3 March 2010.{DD167C8F-0AC4-4FD6-9716-ABB5E0124411}
6. See “Works, projects and national bicentenary programs”,

Other links of interest:
- “Why did fewer die in Chile’s earthquake than in Haiti’s?”. BBC News, 1 March 2010.
- “Maps of the Chile Earthquake”. New York Times, 1 March 2010.
- Three days after the earthquake, the authorities announced that, under the A roof for Chile initiative, 30,000 emergency houses or ‘mediaguas’ will be built. Three hundred volunteers will start working immediately. “Un Techo para Chile construirá 30 mil viviendas para damnificados por terremoto”. El Mercurio. 3 March 2010.
- "Terremoto de Chile de 2010." Wikipedia, La enciclopedia libre. 6 mar 2010,

Chilean Consulate in Melbourne has opened a bank account for direct deposits:
Name: Chile’s Earthquake Help
Bank: Westpac Banking Corporation
BSB: 033 165
Account: 175301

Back to previous page