Chile earthquake: Death toll rises, authorities race to assess damage

As the death toll from the Chile earthquake rises, relief organizations from around the world are set to help the South American nation pick up the pieces. But Chile's authorities say it will take them more time to assess the needs.

Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
A resident retrieves some belongings from a building on Sunday in Talca, after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Chile early Saturday.

As the death toll from Saturday’s monster 8.8 Chile earthquake continues to rise, authorities in Chile are focusing relief efforts on the hardest-hit southern Bio Bio and Maule regions. So far some 2,000 police and military personnel have been deployed not only in rescue and recovery efforts but also to maintain order in what has become an increasingly chaotic disaster zone.

On Sunday afternoon, President Michelle Bachelet announced that the official death toll – previously 300 – now stands at 708. “We’re facing an emergency unlike anything else in Chile’s history,” she said.

Ms. Bachelet also declared an official “State of Emergency,” promising to deploy more soldiers to the area. But Chile's National Office of Emergencies and Information said international assistance will not be required until Chilean authorities can properly assess the overall damage. President Bachelet said in a nationalized television address Saturday night that authorities will not have a clear picture of the devastation for 48 to 72 hours.

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

Rescues and looting near epicenter

Local news outlets reported that 18 people were rescued Sunday from a collapsed apartment building in the Bio Bio capital of Concepcion, Chile’s second largest city after Santiago. Dozens in the downed, 15-story structure are still missing.

Recovery efforts were complicated Sunday by looting in Concepcion supermarkets and pharmacies.

Isolated incidents of looting have also taken place in Santiago, where supermarkets are receiving a flood of panicked shoppers.

Concepcion’s mayor, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, called the situation “Dante-esque” and told Radio Cooperativa things are “getting out of control.”

“This is so complicated because we don’t know how many dead people there are. I think it’s more than they’ve announced,” she said.

Access to epicenter a problem

The magnitude 8.8 earthquake – the largest to hit Chile in a half century – struck at 3:34 a.m. Saturday morning and lasted more than two minutes. The epicenter is believed to be near Cauquenes, a small Bio Bio community close to the Maule border. Government officials admitted Sunday they still have no idea what the situation is like in Caquenes.

Access has been a major obstacle and has so far prevented aid organizations from reaching the disaster zone. The massive quake downed bridges throughout the country, including several along Chile’s vital north-south artery, Ruta 5. Santiago’s international airport also sustained damage but opened late Sunday to a limited traffic, Air Force Gen. Ricardo Ortega said.

International offers for help

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, has offered to coordinate an international aid effort, and it reports that the European Commission and Red Cross have together pledged some US$3.5 million.

“The UN made an offer but we have not received a reply from the government,” said OCHA spokesperson Stephanie Bunker. “The [Chilean] government has, as we know, good capacity and we’re waiting to see if they need any help.”

Andrea Cordoba of World Vision expects that with the airport finally open, aid groups will be able to begin delivering supplies – perhaps as early as Monday.

“The government is concentrating on just part of the response, setting up field hospitals. But the people that are still in the streets or in the hills looking for a safe place to stay need tents, sleeping bags, blankets, food, and, fundamentally, water,” says Ms. Cordoba. “People are desperate. Part of the reason they’re stealing is just the general chaos, but it’s also because they simply don’t have water to drink.”

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

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