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Chile earthquake much stronger than Haiti's but far less damage. Why?

The Chile earthquake -- at a magnitude of 8.8 -- was much stronger than the one that hit Haiti, but casualties and damages appear to be far less. Why?

By Benjamin Witte and Sara Miller LlanaCorrespondent and Staff writer / February 27, 2010

A man makes his way through the rubble after a tsunami hit Pueco, 10 kms from Concepcion, the day after a huge 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Chile early morning killing at least 300 people, Saturday.


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Santiago, Chile and Mexico City

The earthquake that struck Chile was far stronger than the one that struck Haiti in January.

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But, initial reports show that damage was much more contained. While the death toll of 214 is only preliminary and is expected to grow, it’s still a thousand times lower than that of Haiti’s.

One emergency official quoted by Reuters said the number of deaths was unlikely to increase dramatically.

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

Because of its long history with earthquakes, which has contributed to an earthquake “consciousness” in Chile, and infrastructure that is built to higher standards, many hope that Chile will be spared the vast destruction that struck Haiti, even as it deals with one of its worst natural disasters in decades.

“Chile has a long story of earthquakes, but I think this was the worst ever,” says Paula Saez, an aid worker at World Vision in Chile.

The 8.8-magnitude quake that struck about 200 miles south of Santiago, is being billed as one of the world’s largest in a century, but it will most likely not go down as one of the deadliest. In part, that’s because Chile sits in the “ring of fire” earthquake zone and is accustomed to massive temblors, including the largest on record, which hit in 1960 and registered 9.5.

A few more days until full damage is known

The government says that it might be another 72 hours before the real extent of the damage is known, as telecommunications are down in Concepcion, the city closest to the epicenter of the quake. Also, the earthquake impacted many rural areas, where the population is dispersed and hard to account for.

In downtown Santiago, a sense of calm prevailed, after initial panic. Residents began collecting debris that had fallen on the streets and attempted to reopen businesses by midday.

Chileans are well versed in what to do during earthquakes, with drills part of every child’s schooling. “Just in case” attitudes, which might seem obsessive in other parts of the world, are the norm here. One woman says she turns off the gas valve every time she leaves the house, just in case a quake strikes when she is out.

The Chilean National Emergency Office, which coordinates emergency responses, stresses that Chile is among the world’s most seismic. On its website the agency spells out how to prepare in the event of an earthquake.

That, as well as previous experience, helped many through this quake.