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?

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.
Residents walk past debris in a blackout caused by a major earthquake in Pelluhue, Chile.

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

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.

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

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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