8 charged with negligence after calling off 2010 Chilean tsunami warning

Employees of Chile's emergency response offices have been charged after misinforming the public that there was no threat of a tsunami that killed 156 people, writes guest blogger Steven Bodzin.

By , Guest blogger

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Monday and Tuesday, Chile charged eight emergency response bureaucrats with negligent homicide for calling off a tsunami warning after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake of Feb. 27 2010.

That quake sloshed the Pacific ocean so hard that it generated a tsunami wave so high that it soaked land as much as 20 meters above sea level and hundreds of meters inland. The wave killed 156 people and left 25 missing. But even as the wave was hitting towns and villages, emergency response agencies were saying there was no tsunami. This week, some people in charge of the agencies were charged with negligent homicide in a trial that is drawing national attention. Some Santiago newspapers are blogging the trial live; here is La Segunda’s version [in Spanish].

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Among other tidbits already to emerge from the trial, according to La Segunda (translation mine): 

Neither the University of Chile Seismic Service nor the regional emergency response offices had night shifts on duty the morning of the mega-quake and tsunami…

There were alerts from the USA and information from domestic instruments … but despite that, “the tsunami alert wasn’t transmitted”…

Hours after the quake, between 5 am and 6 am, both the Shoa and Onemi [emergency response offices] received reports from around the country confirming the existence of a tsunami, but they didn’t send it to the authorities. “Finally, at 8:52, when the tsunami had already hit almost the entire Chilean coast, did Shoa send an alert”…

The prosecutor related that Carmen Fernandez arrived at Onemi at 4:40 a.m.…and it wasn’t until that moment that there was awareness of a tsunami alert received at 4:07 a.m..

At 4:45 a.m., [ex-Subsecretary of the Interior] Patricio Rosende gave a 13-minute interview from Onemi to TVN. In it, the ex-undersecretary said there was no possibility of a tsunami on the coasts of Chile and that this had already been affirmed by international organizations. “That information was false,” the prosecutor said, adding that with these interviews, what was done was “to disinform the population.”

She similarly questioned the work of Shoa, in particular of Lt. Mario Andina, who said that in the Juan Fernandez islands there had been “a minor event” and that the sea-level variations recorded by instruments were 20 cm. However, prosecutor Huerta objected that these data hadn’t been confirmed by other means. She said the sea-level instrument was put out of service at 4:40 when it was torn away by the tsunami…

Today, the defense has been trying to shake off the accusations. Lawyer Paula Vial said she would show that “the errors were by the state and a system that wasn’t prepared to confront a castastrophe of these characteristics.” Indeed, Subsecretary Rosende would have been committing a crime if he hadn’t followed the advice of lower-level technical staff, the defense said today. We’ll see how this goes.

What’s striking to see, from two years’ distance, is this — a warning from the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Chileans with Blackberries and some other mobile devices still had Internet access after the quake. If they could read English and thought to check that page, they would have seen that when the US put out its alert, there remained 45 minutes to get away from the shore in Talcahuano, a little less in Juan Fernandez. A minute before the undersecretary went on TV to say there was no tsunami, the US put out a second alert, confirming that instruments had detected a tsunami:

SEA LEVEL READINGS INDICATE A TSUNAMI WAS GENERATED. IT MAY HAVE BEEN DESTRUCTIVE ALONG COASTS NEAR THE EARTHQUAKE EPICENTER AND COULD ALSO BE A THREAT TO MORE DISTANT COASTS. AUTHORITIES SHOULD TAKE APPROPRIATE ACTION IN RESPONSE TO THIS POSSIBILITY.

– Steven Bodzin is the Santiago, Chile correspondent for the Monitor. He also blogs at Setty's Notebook.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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