Death toll in Chile earthquake passes 700

March 1, 2010

Calling it an “unthinkable disaster,” Bachelet said a “state of catastrophe” in the hardest-hit regions would continue, allowing for the quick restoration of order and speedy distribution of aid.
Despite looting concerns in some areas, Bachelet said her government reached an agreement with the country’s major supermarkets that would allow them to give away basic foodstuffs they have in stock to those affected by the quake.
Thirty-six hours after the massive earthquake, distribution of electricity remained a key challenge, the president said.
Chile has received many offers of international aid, and will accept the help that it needs, Bachelet said.
“This will take a great effort from all sectors, public and private,” she said.
The armed forces would be available to help with security and the distribution of food, she added.
The president said she hoped that the airport in Santiago, the capital, would reopen to private, public and commercial air traffic in the coming hours.
The airline LAN Chile said that three flights left from Peru to Chile on Sunday, one of them landing in Santiago. These flights were not commercial, but were transporting Chileans stranded in Peru back to their country, LAN Chile Spokesman Roberto Davila told CNN en Español.
The quake comes at a time of transition for Chile. President-elect Sebastian Piñera, who is slated to take office in March, sought to rally spirits in an interview with Radio Bio Bio Sunday afternoon.
“Chile is a country that has been hit many times by adversity in its history and we have known in the past how to face adversity,” Piñera said.
“And I hope today our character is stronger than ever.”
The quake struck before dawn Saturday, toppling thousands of houses, affecting 2 million people and dealing a serious blow to one of Latin America’s most stable economies.
The Chilean Red Cross reported that some 500,000 homes suffered considerable damage as a result of the quake.
More than 90 aftershocks had been recorded, ranging from 4.9 to 6.9 in magnitude.
Of the 708 reported dead as of Sunday afternoon, 541 had died in Chile’s Maule region, and 64 in the Bio Bio region, both in south-central Chile.
Some 103 people died in other areas.
“I am certain that these are numbers that will continue to grow,” Bachelet said.
In Concepcion, the capital of the Bio Bio region, video showed collapsed walls of buildings, now exposing twisted pieces of rebar. Whole sides of buildings were sheared off, and at least two structures caught fire. Emergency teams rescued 30 people from one collapsed building.
The country’s major north-south highway was severed at multiple points; and the capital city’s airport was closed after its terminal sustained major damage.
In the city of Constitucion, more than 60 bodies were found and placed in a makeshift morgue inside the gym of a local school, a federal police officer said.
Buildings lay in rubble, bridges and highway overpasses were toppled and roads buckled like crumpled paper. Mangled cars were strewn on highways, many of them resting on their roofs.
“The television fell, all the decorations fell. Everything you can imagine was on the floor,” Santiago resident Juan Vivanco told CNN en Español.
Vivanco said he waited until the shaking stopped before climbing down 17 flights of stairs to exit his apartment building. At his home, as with many others in the capital, the building exterior showed few, if any, signs of damage, while inside, things were a mess.
Saturday’s quake was 700 to 800 times stronger than the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck Haiti in January, leaving 212,000 people dead and more than a million homeless.
It also occurred at a greater depth — 21.7 miles — compared to the shallow 8.1-mile depth of the Haiti quake, which contributed to much of the damage there.
Coastal Chile has a history of deadly earthquakes, with 13 temblors of magnitude 7.0 or higher since 1973, the U.S. Geological Survey said. As a result, experts said, newer buildings are constructed to help withstand the shocks.
One major concern on Sunday was security, said the mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe.
Desperate residents scrounged for water and supplies inside empty and damaged supermarkets. On Sunday morning, authorities resorted to tear gas and water cannons in some instances to disperse looters.
Looting was being done not just by desperate residents, but by others who saw an opportunity to steal, Van Rysselberghe said.
In addition to food and emergency supplies, looters were taking from appliance and electronics stores, she said.
“They are robbing everything,” she said, asking for a strong military response in her city to restore calm.
Some small business owners had resorted to protecting their shops with rifles and shotguns, and the current police force was inadequate, she said.
Piñera warned Sunday that looting could get worse as nightfall approaches, calling for the government’s help in restoring public order.
“Tonight we will experience a very, very difficult situation with public order, particularly in the area of Concepcion,” Piñera told Radio Bio Bio.
For its part, the city government was distributing water from the central plaza, Van Rysselberghe said.
Saturday’s epicenter was just a few miles north of the largest earthquake recorded in the world: a magnitude 9.5 quake in May 1960 that killed 1,655 and unleashed a tsunami that crossed the Pacific.