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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?

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IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

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Learning from previous earthquakes

Leonel Araya, a doorman in Santiago who lost a child in a 1982 earthquake, says that he has learned from past experiences. “I’ve been through three big earthquakes, including a maremoto (tsunami) in the north. You learn from them, to be more humanitarian. To think about things better.”

He says he ran to open the door, to get his family under the frame to protect them.

“Everything else can fall,” he says. “I just tried to control the family, because you know, the family, the children, my wife, are really nervous. That’s one thing I learned. You need to keep them right next to you, because once, in an earthquake in 82, a son who’s no longer with me got away from me. And when I tried to grab him, he slipped out and was crushed by a wall.”

Silvia Vidalia, an elderly woman in a neighborhood in Santiago, also stressed the need to stay calm.

“The first thing you need to do is calm each other down. My husband, for example, who is 80-something, is very nervous. So the first thing I did was calm him down. And then, after that hellish shaking ended, we went downstairs because we live on the second floor. You have to find a safe place.”

Population less dense than Haiti

Chile will undoubtedly also be helped by the fact that the earthquake did not happen in as dense an area as Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where parts of the city and several government buildings were literally flattened. It will also be helped by better-enforced building codes, one of the most significant challenges in Haiti. A US Geological Survey researcher told Reuters that a low death toll could be attributed to strong building standards.

Maria Cristina Sepulveda, a pharmacist in Santiago, says she believes she survived because of the sturdiness of the buildings around her.

“It seems like where I live is very well built, because nothing happened to it. I’ve been there for 15 years. The old buildings are well built,” she says.

One of the challenges in the hours ahead will be the damage to infrastructure. Bridges have fallen and airports closed. Some areas are only reachable by helicopter, says Ms. Saez. She says the government is reporting that up to 400,000 people could be affected. The death toll could be higher since in many rural towns there are no hospitals to report figures.

It will also be a blow to the economy, especially given damage to the copper industry, the world’s largest.

“It’s the most difficult emergency that Chile has faced in a long time,” Saez says.

And the quake has, for now, left many in the nation stunned. After all, says Ms. Vidalia, no one can ever really be prepared. “We know this is a seismic country, but one’s never prepared.”

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

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