Looting and chaos reign in quake-stricken regions of Chile

Miami HeraldMarch 1, 2010 

CURICO, Chile -- As the death toll more than doubled and reports of looting reached the capital, President Michelle Bachelet dispatched the military to control unruly disaster zones and sought to help the survivors of this country's devastating earthquake.

"We're facing an emergency that is unprecedented in the history of Chile,'' Bachelet said in a national address.

Bachelet, reiterated the need for temporary hospitals and bridges as well as damage experts. She also announced a plan to distribute what was left of supermarket merchandise for free.

By the government's account, the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Saturday killed 711 people. Authorities expect the death toll to grow even larger.

In Concepción, 70 miles from the epicenter, television cameras captured desperate residents forcing open iron doors of a supermarket and tossing boxes of produce to waiting crowds. Sobbing women said that they had no milk for their kids -- as men scrambled past hoisting microwave ovens.

Bachelet denounced the looting, saying many people were not hungry but rather taking advantage.

Some areas in Chile have become black holes to the government. With access and communications cut off, the government has yet to determine the exact toll of the damages.

``Every hour that passes we have worse news than before,'' said Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma. ``It has cost us a lot of effort to get to the coastal areas, we have connection and communication problems.''

Among the mysteries: how many hundreds of people lie under the rubble in Constitución, a coastal city north of the epicenter rattled by the earthquake and then flooded by a tidal wave of up to 33 feet that roared four or five blocks into town.

Constitución is one of the symbols of the catastrophe that befell Chile. The night before the earthquake, hundreds of people were celebrating a local festival on an island off the city's shoreline that can be reached only by boat. The revelers on the island could not escape the wall of water.

By Sunday afternoon, only 64 bodies had been recovered. Police sources say more than 350 people may have died there.

``The situation is chaotic,'' Aarón Salazar, a Constitución resident, told a local radio station.

Paula Riquelme, who was visiting the city, told the radio station that ``the force of the sea was such that the occupants of the dwellings that remained standing found themselves surrounded by floating fish and seaweed. The material losses are total.''

On Sunday, Bachelet declared a state of catastrophe in the two regions worst hit by the quake and ensuing tidal wave. The state of catastrophe empowers the president ``to restrict the circulation of persons and the transportation of goods, as well as the freedoms of labor, information, opinion and assembly.''

The mayor of Concepción, Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe, asked the federal government to do more.

``There are houses at risk, they are empty and they are going to be totally looted,'' she told TV Chile. ``People attacked supermarkets, clothing stores, electronics stores, motorcycle shops. The government promised 200 soldiers. We need more -- many more.''

Minutes after the state of catastrophe was decreed, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was imposed in the Bio-Bio region.

Chilean authorities acknowledged a serious error committed by the Chilean navy, specifically its Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service, which did not alert the population to the likelihood of a tidal wave hitting the coast.

Read the full story at MiamiHerald.com

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