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.

Carlos Espinoza/AP
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.

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.

“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.

“The economy has continued to grow, but the administration has failed to provide a grand reconstruction plan,” he explains. “So, no one knows what the reconstruction plan is. There isn’t a national understanding for the reconstruction as in earthquakes past, and public participation has been largely absent.”

As a result, Piñera's approval rating has taken a beating. Once as high as 63 percent on the surprising rescue of the 33 trapped miners, his rating tumbled to 47 percent in December as goodwill eroded and opposition leaders criticized the president over the slow earthquake recovery.

But Claudio Deney, 32, project leader of the three camps near Caleta Tumbes under the purview of the Department of Housing and Urban Planning, rolls his eyes at the suggestion that his department has dragged its feet.

Little land suitable for homes

“We all understand how much people want a permanent home, but they aren’t aware of where the risks are and we can’t let them rebuild where ever they choose,” Mr. Deney explains from his office in downtown Concepción. “By now all of the land has been purchased and we anticipate all families will be in their homes by the end of 2012.”

A topographical map of Caleta Tumbes was taped to the wall behind Deney’s desk, the unsuitable areas because of seismic or tsunami risks were shaded in yellow and purple – the lands unsuitable for building by far greater than the suitable land.

On Friday, a day ahead of Piñera’s scheduled visit to Caleta Tumbes, Deney was busy making last-minute preparations. He walked through the Maryland camp, pleased with its orderliness and the residents' sense of ownership. They had planted gardens, installed satellite dishes, replaced wooden latch windows with glass panes, and built additions to their original 194-square-foot homes.

Seventy-five families live in the settlement, their homes separated by a dirty rock-covered path, boxed in by steep mountains on all sides. Each bathroom unit is shared by two to three families, Deney said as a man with recently rinsed hair strolled through the dusty street with a towel hanging over his bare shoulder.

A couple of women managed a moment of playful banter with Deney over Piñera’s visit. “You know he won’t come if you pull out anti-Piñera signs,” he kidded.

The following day, while thousands marched the streets of Concepción in protest, Piñera told local residents that the only thing still standing between them and title to their land was legal formality.

“It’s true, you still lack infrastructure,” Piñera told them Saturday. “But I want to say that the reconstruction is not only to rebuild what was before the earthquake and tsunami, it’s to rebuild it better, much better.”

'I won't wait'

Back in El Molino, however, the Obando family is not amused. They're already five months late on their electricity bill, and others continue to mount.

“The reality is we’d starve if not for the kindness of others,” says Susana, who has had to quit university and gain a job as a motel receptionist to help support the family. “Pretty soon the food is going to run out and then what will we do?”

As the family sat around the living room of their shack, the likelihood that this would remain their home for another two years ignited emotions simmering at the surface.

“I won’t wait another year,” Obando says. “I’ll pick up this shack and haul it back to Dichato, to start over on our plot of land.”

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