Chile this weekend saw an 8.8 magnitude earthquake. While that country is still dealing with the aftermath of that catastrophe, 1.5 million homes destroyed, over 700 dead, and widespread looting the damage is staggeringly minor considering that the quake was 700 to 800 TIMES the magnitude of the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th and caused a humanitarian disaster.
JPL research scientist Richard Gross reported that the quake moved the planet’s axis three inches, and permanently shortened the planet’s day by 1.26 microseconds. Yet, even of the deaths so far reported, most weren’t even killed by the quake itself, but rather, the result tsunamis that ravages Chile’s coast.
Obviously, the recent earthquake demands a comparison to Haiti, and there is clearly something to be learned here. Chile is unfortunately one of the most volatile places on Earth both in terms frequency and severity of seismic events, but the country has learned to deal with them in an admirable way since the 1980’s. Chile, like Japan, has invested significant capital in upgrading their infrastructure and their disaster response, and clearly, it has paid off.
Chile has upgraded its building codes since it’s 9.0 magnitude quake in 1985 (much as Japan did from its disastrous Kobe earthquake since 1995) and has spent the past two decades retrofitting old buildings and building new ones with some of the world’s strictest building codes. The results can be seen – most of the structures destroyed were older clay and adobe homes, not modern apartments.
Since the coming of democracy in Chile in 1990, the nation has invested heavily in disaster preparedness and response as well, creating the National Office for Emergencies (ONEMI). The ONEMI integrates several institutions under one unified command, including volunteer firefighting units, utility companies, the armed forces, and other various civilian rescue organizations.
While Chile’s Navy failed to recognize the threat of the tsunamis that killed many along the coast, the ONEMI was quick to respond, both in rescue operations and keeping order from the inevitable looting that took place.
Unlike Haiti, Chile’s government remained solvent after the crisis and has so far been very effective at dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis, but most important of all, Chileans are very earthquake aware. People simply knew what to do.
With a government willing to spend the time and resources to make buildings safer and government more accountable to the needs of the people, and with a populace well educated in how to deal with likely disaster, the death toll was extremely low for such a powerful earthquake.
While the situation there is far from ideal, the amount of damage and life lost could easily have been an order of magnitude or two worse. The world should commend both the government and people of Chile for its efforts. While the rest of the world stands prepared to help, the nation’s relative lack of desperation in the face of Mother Nature’s nasty curveball gives us cause for respect. We all have something to learn from Chile: a little bit of preparation may not stop the world’s worst disasters, but it may very well save our lives.