Chileans unhappy with quake response, but disaster expert impressed by ‘can-do’ approach

By Michael Warren, AP
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Poll: Chileans unhappy with gov’t’s quake response

CONCEPCION, Chile — Most Chileans are unhappy with their government’s response to the catastrophic earthquake and squarely blame President Michelle Bachelet for shortcomings, according to a poll published Sunday. But some veteran aid experts are impressed by how quickly Chile has mounted a huge disaster-recovery effort.

The poll published by the daily newspaper El Mercurio found 72 percent of Chileans believe the government responded late and inefficiently to re-establish order after the earthquake, and 48 percent believe it was because Bachelet did not want to end her term by sending soldiers into the streets. Sixty percent also believe aid delivery has been too slow and inefficient.

The survey of 600 adults, conducted in Santiago on Thursday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Bachelet decreed a “state of catastrophe” less than three hours after the early-morning quake of Feb. 27, but didn’t put the military in charge of the disaster response until the following day at 3 p.m. Significant aid didn’t reach some hard-hit communities for two or three days after the 8.8-magnitude temblor and subsequent tsunami.

But the government since then has rolled out a massive effort, deploying planes, ships, helicopters, trucks, heavy equipment and thousands of troops to deliver tons of aid flowing in from government storehouses, Chilean businesses and foreign governments and aid groups.

“Could FEMA have done that?” said Chris Weeks, director of humanitarian affairs for the DHL delivery company, referring to the U.S. government’s disaster agency.

Weeks, who leads a volunteer response team that organizes airport aid deliveries in major disasters worldwide, believes Chile has managed to avoid the bureaucracy and squabbling that often delays aid deliveries — for example by quickly patching up the critical north-south highway to keep aid flowing.

“These Chileans are such can-do people,” he said. “I’ve seen damaged bridges with big metal slabs covering the gaps. If that were the States they would close the bridges for two months while structural engineers figured out if you could cross.”

At least 500,000 homes were destroyed, but the figure could reach 1.5 million once surveys are complete, Housing Minister Patricia Poblete said.

United Nations agencies and many countries have flown in planeloads of relief, including 79 metric tons of the World Food Program’s high-energy biscuits and other food, enough to feed 35,000 children for five days.

Chilean air force planes are landing every half-hour in Concepcion, and a national telethon collected $58 million Saturday — twice what was hoped for.

That’s just a tiny fraction of what will be needed for the recovery effort: Reconstruction cost estimates range from $12 billion to $30 billion. That’s a huge amount for a country with an annual budget of $42 billion, even though Chile has saved more than $11 billion in copper profits from the state-owned Codelco mining company.

With the tsunami wiping away entire communities and stranding wreckage miles inland in mainland Chile, the death toll has been difficult to determine. After first reporting higher figures, the Chilean Interior Department said it would release only the number of identified dead: 452 as of the latest announcement, on Friday.

Associated Press Writers Michael Warren and Federico Quilodran contributed from Santiago, Chile.

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