Chile's coast cries for help from disaster wrought by sea

ILOCA, Chile — The coast of the Maule Region — 155 miles south of Santiago and lined by small resort towns like El Penon, La Pesca, Rancura, El Buzo, Iloca and Duao — is now a surrealist landscape.

In those places, the sea changed the geography. Everything was swept away by tidal waves that rose 40 feet and higher.

Chilean television showed military vehicles moving down highways, firemen working on the rubble of what was a large building in Concepcion, fires and looting in the big cities. Here on the coast, nobody has seen any of that.

In these places, the lack of communication is such that the residents believe that the disaster hit only them, that they're going through a nightmare that nobody else has suffered.

The Chilean military found itself on the defensive Tuesday, four days after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake rattled much of the nation, and three giant waves soaked the coast.

With bridges out and roads ruined, residents along an enormous swath of coast say they have yet to receive any aid from the government.

"The president already ordered — action, not analysis," said Navy Vice Admiral Francisco Guzmen, a gaggle of reporters pressing him for explanations.

President Michelle Bachelet said she has accepted offers of international aid.

"People need water, food, clothing," Bachelet said while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood at her side. "We have those things available in the country. But they can't be delivered if you do not have roads with bridges."

Clinton delivered 25 satellite phones, eight water purification systems, a mobile hospital, mobile dialysis machines, generators, medical supplies and portable bridges.

"We'll be there to be of the help when others leave, because we are committed to this partnership and friendship with Chile," Clinton said in a televised news conference at the Santiago airport.

Also, the government of Chile has declined the offers of U.S.-funded Los Angeles and Fairfax County, Va., dog-sniffing teams, but a State Department spokeswoman said Washington still had them on standby in case a need arises.

Only on Monday did military units arrive in Constitucion, the city closest to these resort towns, to install a satellite-communications station for the police. Small help for a city where the death toll is almost 400, the number of homeless is at least 1,000 and where practically the entire infrastructure is gone.

"There is plenty of time to determine what went wrong where and why," Interior Minister Edmundo Perez told reporters. "Today, what's important is getting the help to where it is needed. Later, we can have witch hunts and determine responsibility."

Jeanete Vergara, who lived in Rancura, is still waiting.

The night of the earthquake, she and her husband ran out of the house as soon as the shaking stopped.

"A man shouted, 'Go away, go away,' and we jumped in our van to drive to the hills. The sea was chasing us," she recalls.

Like Vergara, thousands of people in those resorts leaped into their vehicles and fled to the hills, warned by the local residents who — long before the Chilean Navy and the Office of National Emergency — predicted the reaction of the ocean.

That is why few people died in these resorts. But there are thousands of homeless, most of whom remain in the hills because there's nothing to return to down below.

"Before, if you stood on the shore and looked toward the sea, you could see the mouth of the Mataquito, the dunes and the sea beyond," Jeanete says. What you see now is the sea, which rose inland about 200 meters.

What remains standing on Iloca's main street is a 26-foot-tall Wheel of Fortune that was swept by the sea a distance of about 230 feet from a children's amusement park. Beyond are two empty cages where the Montinis Grand Circus kept a lion and a lioness. The animals survived the tsunami, but the following morning the lioness escaped and fled to the hills. Alerted by residents, the Iloca police found and killed the animal.

"Here is the circus," says Jose Gonzelez, Cucharita the Clown in the Montinis troupe. He points to a container half-buried in the sand and several empty cages just beyond. The sea lifted all that, pushed it for 450 yards and threw it about, the way dice are flung on a gaming table.

Cucharita's act was a musical instrument performance. His entire family was involved.

"The water came in, unstoppable," he said, staring at the desolation around him. "I don't know what we're going to do now. But we're a circus family, all 70 of us, so we'll have to keep going."

(Special correspondent Juan Andres Guzmen reported from Iloca and Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles from Miami. Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed from Miami.)

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