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Chile earthquake anniversary puts President Piñera in the hotseat

Thousands of families still living in temporary huts after an 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile a year ago today blame President Sebastian Piñera for not doing more.

By Aaron NelsenCorrespondent / February 27, 2011

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (r.) leaves the National Emergency Office headquarters in Santiago, Chile, Feb. 11. One year after a major 8.8 earthquake hit Chile, thousands of families are still living in temporary huts.

Carlos Espinoza/AP

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El Molino, Chile

Susana Obando Valenzuela sits on the edge of her salmon-colored couch inside the government-built shack she reluctantly calls home and remembers the day that changed her life forever.

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“One day last year I went to bed and had everything a person could ever need,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. "The next day I woke up with nothing.”

One year ago today, a three-story tsunami washed away Mrs. Obando's home in Dichato, a small fishing hamlet in southern Chile. Thousands of families lost everything, while hundreds more perished in the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that shifted Earth’s axis three inches and proved pivotal for the first year of Sebastian Piñera's presidency.

In the aftermath, families like Obando's were moved into leaky, rat-infested tents provided by international aid organizations, but by mid-June most of the 4,291 homeless families had been relocated into one of 75,000 temporary wooden huts. These shelters are looking more permanent every day for those who lost everything in last year's quake, and daily frustration over poorly defined reconstruction plans, water shortages, and shared bathrooms is morphing into sagging poll numbers for President Piñera.

Piñera was widely praised for taking decisive action when he took office in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake, but the conservative leader was greeted by angry residents as he visited the area this weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy. Thousands of demonstrators protested his visit to the regional capital of Concepción, shouting “reconstruction now!"

“Don’t get me wrong, after living in the tents we were just happy to have a roof over our heads,” says Obando’s 25-year-old daughter, Susana, from her parents home here in Sector 2 of El Molino, which with 456 families is the largest of Chile’s 106 temporary villages where those who lost their homes in the earthquake and tsunami now reside.

“We feel abandoned," she adds.

New president inherits gargantuan task

Frustration with Piñera's government is palpable in El Molino and in the nearby industrial city of Concepción,

A year ago, amid the tumbled buildings, some 6,000 troops descended upon Chile’s second-largest city to quell widespread post-quake looting and lawlessness. It was against this backdrop that Piñera took office as Chile’s first right-leaning president since democracy was restored two decades ago.

He inherited a gargantuan task and has addressed some of glaring weaknesses in the country’s emergency alert and response system, exposed by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami, says Ricardo Israel, a political analyst at the Autonomous University of Chile.

“[Piñera] did a good job of making the necessary changes to the emergency system,” he says. “And the country was quick to return to normality compared to other countries who have suffered lesser magnitude quakes.”

Where Piñera fell short

But the administration fell short in other areas, according to Mr. Israel. Past earthquakes have ushered in sweeping changes in building design and economic activity, but that has yet to materialize this time around.

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