Chile’s military delivers first substantial quake aid _ to a neighborhood of military families

By Michael Warren, AP
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chile military delivers aid, but 1st helps its own

CONCEPCION, Chile — Four days after a deadly earthquake, Chile’s military finally rolled out a massive humanitarian aid effort Wednesday that promised to improve an image long associated with dictatorship-era repression.

The dump trucks that soldiers spent all night helping fill with bags of food made their first deliveries in a neighborhood of military families who already had enough to eat.

After days of looting, rifle-toting troops occupied nearly every block of hard-hit Concepcion on Wednesday, enforcing a curfew that expired at noon with checkpoints throughout the city. With the streets more secure, they focused on aid.

Soldiers had worked overnight stuffing basics including flour, canned beans, cooking oil and tea into hundreds of plastic bags that volunteers loaded into dump trucks. Municipal workers then distributed the bags to survivors, many of whom had gone without fresh food or drinking water since Saturday’s quake.

The convoy rolled minutes after the curfew expired — the first of many to deploy throughout the disaster area, army Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Andrades said.

Its first stop: A neighborhood inhabited by military families, next to army headquarters in Concepcion.

“This entire block belongs to the army,” said Yanira Cifuentes, 31, the very first to get aid. She said her husband is an officer.

Cifuentes said the aid was welcome after days of sleeping in tents and sharing food with neighbors over a wood fire. But she also said the neighborhood hadn’t gone hungry because residents had access to food at the regiment.

“Until now we have been OK, sharing everything with each other,” she said.

Military officers who refused to give their names insisted their families were suffering, too, and said many soldiers have been working around the clock since the quake not knowing how their loved ones fared. Still, it was unclear who ordered the first food delivery to the military housing on General Novoa Avenue.

Army Cmdr. Antonio Besamat said local authorities controlled food distribution, with the armed forces providing only security. Juan Piedra, of the National Emergency Office, said civilian officials must follow military decisions under terms of the state of emergency declared by President Michelle Bachelet.

Some residents were angry not at the troops but at the local government, which had announced Tuesday that none of the first aid shipments would go to neighborhoods inhabited by people who took goods from ruined stores. Many of those neighborhoods are Concepcion’s poorest.

“Aid should reach those who have nothing first,” said Luis Sarzosa, 47, a heavy equipment operator. “The well-off always get things first and the people with nothing, they leave to the side.”

His sister Marcela Sarzosa, a 44-year-old homemaker who lives across the train tracks from a huge supermarket whose looting by hundreds of her neighbors sparked more widespread break-ins in Concepcion, said: “I didn’t loot anything. Who’s going to help me?”

Survivors had cheered the troops’ arrival and the restoration of order in streets still littered with rubble, downed power lines and destroyed cars. Citizens’ applause — mixed with cries of “Finally!” — have soldiers proud of their role in keeping the peace, a welcome feeling for many in Chile’s armed forces who have generally not been used for police work during 20 years of democracy.

Since the bloody 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, many Chileans have preferred that soldiers stay inside their barracks. But police were overwhelmed when looting began after the quake, and Bachelet took the unprecedented step on Sunday of declaring an emergency that turned 14,000 soldiers into peacekeepers in their own country.

Aid from the national government had begun to reach some small communities around Concepcion by helicopter Tuesday, but the distribution effort became visible to the rest of the public only Wenesday with the convoy of seven dump trucks delivering food bags.

The food was donated by the government and businesses including the Lider Hipermart chain — a subsidiary of Wal-Mart — whose one store in Concepcion that wasn’t looted has now been comandeered by the Chilean military.

C-17 transport planes were delivering more food and troops to Concepcion, and some 150 military trucks were being deployed in the disaster area. Military helicopters ferried disaster aid from the city to smaller towns and villages along the Pacific coast that were destroyed by the tsunami. In nearby Talcahuano, a field hospital was erected to relieve pressure on a quake-damaged hospital in Concepcion, and local government officials were distributing 17,000 meal rations.

Saturday’s magnitude-8.8 quake and tsunami ravaged a 700-kilometer (435-mile) stretch of Chile’s Pacific coast. Downed bridges and damaged or debris-strewn highways made transit difficult if not impossible in many areas. The official death toll reached 802 on Wednesday.

Amid continuing aftershocks, officials installed barriers around more tall buildings in Concepcion, including a 20-story skyscraper whose heavily damaged upper floors are now leaning over Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue.

Most businesses in Concepcion were still closed, with power and water only slowly coming back in scattered areas. Many survivors still had to take river water in buckets to flush toilets. In Lota, a town of 50,000 where tent camps have sprouted, officials took water from the Rio Negro and trucked it to needy neighborhoods, urging residents to boil it before using it.

In Chile’s capital of Santiago, air force chief Gen. Ricardo Ortega said he had planes ready to deliver aid just two hours after the quake but had to wait for Bachelet’s emergency declaration Sunday. Bachelet said that Ortega was “badly informed” and that an air force helicopter wasn’t ready for her to inspect damage until nearly six hours after the quake.

Seeking to end squabbling over the government’s performance — the navy conceded it should have issued a tsunami alert — Bachelet declared: “Enough with pointing fingers. The main problem is helping the people.”

Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Eva Vergara in Concepcion and Federico Quilodran in Santiago contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS location of Sarzosa home and location of hospital to Talcahuano, instead of Talco.)

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