Chile earthquake: President Bachelet opens up to foreign aid

After days of holding off on accepting foreign aid offers in the wake of the Chile earthquake, President Michelle Bachelet has now welcomed help from abroad.

Alex Ibanez/Chilean Presidency/AP
Chile's earthquake: President Michelle Bachelet, second from right, talked to residents as she visited destroyed houses in Concepción, Chile, on Saturday, after a magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck earlier that same day.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

In the hours following the magnitude-8.8 Chilean earthquake Saturday morning, one of the world’s worst in a century, the country seemed miraculously spared, and the government declined immediate offers of foreign aid.

Chile, after all, is one of Latin America's richest, most developed nations. And, unlike Haiti – the continent's poorest and least developed country – Chile was far better prepared to deal with Saturday's monster quake.

But after the death toll doubled Sunday to more than 700, with entire villages submerged by a tsunami, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet appealed for aid worldwide and said the catastrophe the nation faced was “unthinkable.”

IN PICTURES: Images from the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile

While telecommunications failures and the isolated nature of the destruction zone were to blame for a failure in initial assessments, some say the government was slow to respond and that it should have accepted help immediately.
“There is a perception that the government did not correctly assess the gravity of the situation. There is also the pride of Chile, that Chile is not Haiti. It is like Japan, or the US,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University. “There is a mistake there, that was probably the government’s fault. When earthquakes hit, it is perfectly legitimate for governments to take in aid immediately after.”

Santiago resident Carmen Medina has an even stronger take.

"I think that any help would have been welcome right away. Anything. They needed to send help immediately," said Ms. Medina, looking at a building that nearly collapsed in Maipu, in western Santiago. "Why [did they] take so long? Why do they have to study everything so much if it's so obvious we've got a problem?"

Others, though, thought that the government was wise to take time to assess the problem so that it could better organize relief efforts and meet real – not imagined – needs.

Victor Valenzuela, a resident of Santiago who was waiting in line for a bank to open, says that the government response was logical.

"You have to see what is needed," says Mr. Valenzuela. "So it's obvious the government should do an analysis of the situation and then ask help from countries, so that they don't send things that we might not need."

Camilo Navarro, whose adult daughter (who is fine) was living in an apartment building that collapsed in Maipu, says that he agrees with a more deliberate response to the catastrophe. "You always have to evaluate the real cost ... so that you do not come to rash decisions," he says. "You have to see the real needs. Whether it is food or materials for construction. The authorities have to decide."

Aid pledges roll in

The extent of damage is still unknown in Chile, but countries around the globe have mobilized to offer their support for the 2 million that are estimated to be displaced.

IN PICTURES: Images from the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile

Japan said it would be providing $3 million in emergency grants, as well as sending emergency supplies such as tents, water cleaners, and generators. China promised to send $1 million.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to arrive in Chile on Tuesday, and the United States has said it will offer support and solidarity to the nation. The European Union has pledged $4 million in immediate assistance.

International aid groups, in the midst of unprecedented recovery efforts in Haiti, which was devastated by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in January, are also planning to pitch in.

The Red Cross said its volunteers are providing first aid, and has released $280,000 for relief efforts, though their crews already on the ground are leading the efforts. On Monday, the World Health Organization said it is working closely with Chile's government to assess the status of health facilities and support the delivery of healthcare. Indigenous populations are expected to be most at risk, the WHO said on Monday. They also report that 500,000 homes were destroyed.

The United Nations said Monday it would quickly send relief to Chile after the government opened up to aid and identified its emergency needs as temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens, and dialysis centers.

Chile's own efforts

Chile’s Ministry of Health says that four Chilean Air Force field hospitals are being set up with the capacity for 50 to 60 patients each, and there may be a need for additional temporary facilities to fill the gap left by the damaged facilities.

President Bachelet has dispatched 10,000 troops to restore order, especially in the towns most affected in the Maule region, along the Chilean coast. There, officials have said that 80 percent of towns are destroyed. While the price tag of reconstruction is not yet known, it will be billions of dollars.

The initial assessments, which put the death toll at just over 200, were hampered by telecommunications outages, and also by the fact that February is typically a vacation month in Chile as the summer in the Southern Hemisphere draws to a close, says Mr. Navia. Also, as overwhelmingly popular Bachelet prepares to step down from office March 11, with a new government coming into office, there may have been an element of winding down. “She was a day late in terms of her reaction,” Navia says.

But, he adds, "for an 8.8 earthquake, one of the strongest in the history of the world, the country reacted fairly well."
Bachelet's government initially declined international offers to help.

“We are very grateful for people's good intentions, but let's let the [Chilean] emergency office get its very specific report on needs done," Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez said on Saturday. Chile does not want "aid from anywhere to be a distraction" from disaster relief, he said. "Any aid that arrives without having been determined to be needed really helps very little."

Bachelet later said that some international aid could be used to fund field hospitals, temporary bridges, and water plants.

IN PICTURES: Images from the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile

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