Chile Endures Shortages, Looting Amid ‘Late’ Relief

Four days after Chile was hit by its strongest earthquake in 50 years, victims are criticizing the government for failing to respond quickly enough to a disaster that left them drinking fetid water and scrounging for food.

“No one from the government has even showed up to tell us what to do, much less give us any help,” said Julio Valle, a fisherman whose 12-meter trawler was destroyed when a wall of water generated by the Feb. 27 temblor crashed into the port of Talcahuano. “The government has abandoned us to our fate.”

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has dispatched thousands of troops to areas of the country hardest hit by the 8.8-magnitude quake and government officials have said that their sole focus is helping victims. Still, most of the 1 million people who live in Talcahuano and the nearby city of Concepcion don’t have access to drinking water, power or fuel.

“We’re on our own,” Valle said, standing amid mud, dead fish, broken boats and a wasteland of buildings reduced to rubble. He, his wife and his two children are living under a plastic tarp on a hillside, searching for food amid the debris.

Frustration is growing among Chileans from Concepcion, the country’s second-largest city, to the capital Santiago, where neighbors are banding together to guard against looters looking to take advantage of the disorder to steal.

Bachelet isn’t acting fast enough to bring order to the chaos, said Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe. There aren’t enough troops to restore calm and efforts to distribute food, water and temporary shelter have fallen short, she said.

‘Insufficient’ Aid

“Help is starting to arrive in the area, but unfortunately it’s late,” she told ADN Radio Chile. “The amount of aid that’s arrived is insufficient.”

The Navy shares the blame for deaths resulting from a tsunami in Talcahuano after residents, who had fled to higher ground, returned when an alert was lifted only to be hit by a massive wave, said Admiral Edmundo Gonzalez.

“We were not very clear in the information that we delivered,” he said in a televised interview on TVN. “We weren’t precise enough in telling the president to maintain the alert or lift it. We share the blame.”

Juan Soto, a 45-year-old sardine fisherman, says that error may have gotten people killed. “They drove around with loudspeakers telling people it was safe so a lot of folks went back to low ground,” said Soto, 45. Most people in his fishing village of Coliuma lost their homes and some were swept out to sea when a tsunami smashed the shoreline, he said. “The government shares the blame for people’s deaths,” he said.

‘Time for Action’

Chile’s president said the government is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

“It’s not the time for analysis, it’s the time for action,” Bachelet said in a speech. “This is an earthquake of unprecedented proportions and we expect understanding.”

World Vision International workers cannot enter some of the hardest hit areas because of damaged roads, and supplies are being delivered by boats and helicopters, slowing their arrival, said David Dickler, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based relief organization.

“It’s not the government’s fault, it’s just nature’s force,’ he said.

The government put more army troops and marines on the streets of Concepcion and Talcahuano after thieves pillaged and torched businesses over the past three days. Officials instituted a nighttime curfew in a bid to prevent looting.

Satellite Phones

Efforts to provide relief are hampered by a lack of electricity, spotty communication and severed highways. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered 25 satellite phones to Bachelet yesterday and said the U.S. would provide water purification plants, a field hospital and mobile bridges.

Pledges of assistance have also come from the United Nations, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Peruvian President Alan Garcia.

Clinton yesterday praised the government’s response to the earthquake that released hundreds of times more energy than the temblor that left more than 200,000 dead in Haiti in January.

“Your leadership and the extraordinary efforts of your government and the people of Chile are responding with resilience and strength,” Clinton said in Santiago.

The perception among some Chileans was different.

Wrecked Boat

“We have gotten nothing, nothing from the government to help,” said Capt. Fernando Cartes, commander of the main fire brigade in Talcahuano.

Near Valle’s wrecked boat, dozens of people took gasoline from the tanks of a destroyed service station yesterday while another group looted sacks of flour from a warehouse within sight of troops stationed at the gates of Chile’s biggest naval base. A military patrol sped by without stopping, images broadcast on CNN Chile showed.

In Santiago, which wasn’t hit as hard as towns and cities closer to the quake’s epicenter in south-central Chile, reports of bands of thieves roaming the capital’s wealthiest areas stirred fear among residents.

In some areas, people spent the night outside their houses armed with clubs and other weapons to ward off intruders.

“It’s collective psychosis,” said Gonzalo Barrientos, 22, a university student who stood guard outside his home. “There is just fear.”

Bachelet will leave office March 11, when President-elect Sebastian Pinera takes over. Pinera said late yesterday that he’s considering expanding the area of the country covered by a “state of catastrophe” declaration made by Bachelet.

‘Finding Solutions’

“I don’t want to grade the government’s response to the crisis,” he told reporters. “I’m committed to finding solutions, especially in public security that clearly has been a weak spot, and water and electricity supply. The time for evaluations hasn’t arrived yet.”

The total economic cost from the quake may be as much as $30 billion, or about 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to estimates by disaster-scenario modeler Eqecat Inc. Insured losses may amount to $3 billion to $8 billion, Eqecat said. Damages at the high end of that range would make the quake the second-costliest for insurers in history, following the 1994 Northridge, California, temblor.

Stock Market

Chile’s IPSA stock index has declined 2.4 percent since the quake, including a 0.7 percent fall today at 8:20 a.m. New York time. Vina Concha y Toro SA, Chile’s largest winemaker, fell the most in eight months yesterday after the company had to suspend production.

Other companies benefitted. Lafarge Chile SA, a cement maker, jumped the most on record on bets that demand would increase.

Chile’s peso rose 1.1 percent yesterday, the biggest gain among emerging-market currencies, and rose 0.5 percent to 516.25 per dollar in trading today. Traders are betting the government will repatriate overseas savings to fund reconstruction, increasing demand for local currency.

Codelco, the world’s largest copper miner, said it was on track to reach full output yesterday after the quake had knocked out power to two mines supplying more than a third of its production.

Most of Chile’s copper deposits and port facilities are in the northern half of the country and had no reports of damage.

Concerns about supply pushed copper for May delivery up 1.75 cents to $3.4290 a pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange’s Comex unit. It was the metal’s third day of gains.

The Feb. 27 earthquake was the world’s fifth strongest since 1900, carrying a force 500 times stronger than the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that last month devastated Haiti, in terms of the energy released, according to the USGS.

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