Chile quake survivors suffer rainy night; Looters return goods worth $2M

By Vivian Sequera, AP
Monday, March 8, 2010

Chile quake survivors suffer cold, rainy night

CONCEPCION, Chile — A strong rain on a chilly night added to the misery Monday of survivors of Chile’s terrible earthquake and tsunami, many of whom live in tents and improvised shelters as continuing aftershocks threaten to collapse what’s left of their homes.

At least 30 cities and towns were badly damaged, leaving more than 500,000 homes uninhabitable. Authorities are analyzing the damage in buildings across the region to see if people can safely return.

Meanwhile, the best shelter many could hope for as the first rains since the disaster fell was a donated tent or plastic sheeting hung between trees in the pine-covered hills.

One group of six women and seven children camped in a park in Concepcion after leaving their nearby community of San Pedro to avoid vandals and violence.

The children were staying in two flimsy tents, while the women huddled under plastic and blankets strung beneath a large tree, which despite its foliage still allowed rain to fall on their heads.

“This is the last thing we need, for it to rain,” said Magdalena Cuevas, 48. “There are children here who have become ill from diarrhea.”

Some help is coming from A Roof for Chile — a volunteer organization that plans to use part of the money raised in a national telethon this weekend to put up 30,000 tiny prefabricated houses in the next four months. With wooden walls and aluminum roofs, each one is just 9 feet by 6 feet (about 3 meters by 2 meters). But they will provide an emergency solution while stronger and bigger new housing is built, said Gabriel Prudencio, the group’s representative in Concepcion.

These houses lack plumbing, but the group plans to install community bathrooms and kitchens.

“As a society we have to stay on an emergency footing until everyone is able to have their house again,” said Prudencio, who hopes the raw material will arrive in time to begin construction in the next two days.

It could take a year to recover 50 percent of the housing lost in the region of Bio Bio, and 10 years to bring the local economy back to what it was before the disaster, said Osvaldo Arenas, the regional housing secretary.

Security, not housing, was on the minds of local officials Sunday as President Michelle Bachelet arrived in Concepcion to support police and send a strong message against looting.

Using bullhorns as they drove through poor neighborhoods in the Concepcion area, police threatened to raid homes if looters didn’t return what they took from stores in initial hours and days after the quake. And so they did, depositing everything from mattresses to refrigerators and flat-screen TVs. It took 35 truckloads to recover it all, nearly $2 million worth of merchandise, officers said.

Bachelet vowed that those responsible would feel the full weight of the law: prison terms of two to five years.

“These are items that have nothing to do with survival — they reflect the moral damage of the people, some of whom came just to find things they could make money from,” she said, adding that the government also will prosecute anyone responsible for price speculation in the disaster area.

Thousands of quake survivors participated in the looting, which began only hours after the devastating earthquake and grew to include grandmothers and small children. Outnumbered police could only stand and watch, urging people to take only the food they needed, until soldiers arrived and restored order.

The looting hampered rescue and recovery efforts by distracting firefighters and police and deeply wounded the national pride of Chileans who yearn to be considered part of the first world.

“The damage it caused (to Chile’s international image) is lamentable. Now they’ll throw all of us in the same bag,” said Juan Lagos Rosales, a construction worker forced to sleep in a tent with his wife and infant daughter outside their fallen house.

Some excused the looting as a natural result of the yawning wealth gap in Chile, where the poor are exposed to expensive consumer goods without any ability to buy them. The top 20 percent of wage earners make an average of $3,200 a month, compared to $340 a month for the bottom 20 percent, according to the national statistics institute.

When the earthquake shattered store windows, the temptation was too great, said the Rev. Luis Figueroa Vinet of the Our Lady of the Snows cathedral in Concepcion. “The pig isn’t guilty for what poverty brings,” he said, invoking a colorful Chilean adage about inequality.

But a poll Sunday suggests 85 percent of Chileans want the looters prosecuted — a view shared by city worker Aran Fuentes, who said the looting let all Chileans down: “After all that we’ve done for other countries, to present ourselves to the rest of the world as looters really hurts.”

Many Chileans squarely blame Bachelet for failing to stop the looting before it spread throughout the disaster area.

The poll sponsored by the daily newspaper El Mercurio found 72 percent 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 sending soldiers into the streets.

Sixty percent also believe aid delivery has been too slow and inefficient according to the survey of 600 adults in Santiago, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Bachelet did wait 33 hours after declaring a “state of catastrophe” before putting the military in charge of the disaster response, and significant aid didn’t reach some hard-hit communities for two or three days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake and tsunami killed more than 450 people.

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

Some disaster veterans say Chile’s response has been remarkable, largely avoiding bureaucratic infighting and quickly patching up the international airport and main north-south highway to keep aid flowing.

“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. “There are some things going wrong, but a lot has gone right.”

Associated Press Writer Michael Warren reported from Santiago, Chile. AP writers Federico Quilodran in Santiago and Eduardo Gallardo in Concepcion contributed to this report.

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