Lessons from the Chilean Catastrophe

Published on 18 March 2010

Author(s): Disaster Relief Experts Think Tank/Enrique Gajardo

Type:  Discussion List

An expert in risk management,Enrique Gajardo, comments on the Chilean disaster and provides background information that helps us better understand the effects of the earthquake.

I have a few comments regarding the recent Chilean catastrophe:
1. Chile has it own National Emergency Office, called ONEMI that has had an excellent performance in past disasters. But one of the weakness points was the communication systems that relay in private telecommunications companies. The particular shape of the country, extremely long and narrow, make any communication network susceptible to damage that will affect the rest of the network. Due to the high intensity of the earthquake (Magnitude 8.8) many relay stations were damaged, cutting all possibilities of communication.
2. The Chilean Seismic Design Code “guarantee” that any structure designed after 1960 will survive this earthquake, but during the dictator government of Pinochet, the construction quality supervision was privatized (Before it was a very strict government responsibility). The result was that all the building and structures that collapsed are built after 1980, and none of the structures constructed between 1960 and 1980 was damaged.
3. Even that ONEMI is the national organization responsible for any kind of emergency; there are still remaining some responsibilities, as a heritage of the military government, in hands of the Navy. The tsunami warning system depends from the Navy, with minimal technical or scientific support. They were the responsible of not issuing a “tsunami warning” to the coastal areas. More than 70% of the casualties are consequences of the tsunami.
4. There was extensive looting, after the earthquake, in some areas. That is something that has not happens in previous disasters in Chile. One explanation could be the excessive publicity given by the media, and a second could be that the military or police (with their past attitude during the military government of not obeying orders from civilian organizations) didn’t act during the looting.
5. The damage to the lifelines (water pipelines, electrical networks, telecommunications, freeways, etc) and to critical structures (hospitals, schools and government offices) shows a weak point that should be regarded with much more details for the future.

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