Monday, March 1, 2010
Police fired tear gas at looters in the central Chilean city of Concepcion as the country's president and the United Nations vowed to speed delivery of food and water in the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that have killed more than 700 people.
President Michelle Bachelet described the disaster as "an emergency without parallel in Chile's history." Chilean officials initially balked at international assistance, but Bachelet appealed for help as the scope of the devastation from Saturday's 8.8 magnitude quake became clearer.
Rescuers continued their search Monday for an estimated 60 people trapped inside a 15-story apartment building that toppled onto its side in Concepcion, 320 miles south of the capital city of Santiago. Firefighters already had pulled 25 survivors from the structure as well as eight people who died. At one point, rescuers had to pause because of tear gas fired at looters grabbing everything from canned milk to microwave ovens at a damaged supermarket across the street.
The known death toll rose to 723, with 19 others missing, the National Emergency Office announced. Roads and bridges are devastated and an estimated 500,000 homes are badly damaged.
The United Nations on Monday said it would rush assistance, including temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centers.
"We are prepared to provide assistance," U.N. spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs told The Associated Press in Geneva. "It could be quite fast, given that our experts are on standby and were alerted in the region."
The World Health Organization said it expected the death toll to rise in the coming days as communications improve and the extent of casualties becomes clearer.
In Concepcion, the city nearest the epicenter, police used tear gas and imposed a curfew in an effort to control looting. Jaime Toha, the governor of Concepcion province, said 55 people were arrested overnight Sunday for violating curfew.
Survivors in the city reportedly were angered by the slow pace of getting government-issued relief supplies. Bachelet promised imminent deliveries of food, water and shelter for thousands living on the streets. She ordered troops to help deliver food, water and blankets and clear rubble from roads, and she urged power companies to restore service first to hospitals, health clinics and shelters. Field hospitals were planned for hard-hit Concepcion, Talca and Curico.
Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, also signed a decree giving the military control over security in the provinces of Concepcion and Maule and announced a 9 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew for all non-emergency workers.
Reporter Annie Murphy told NPR that she saw numbers of people out in the streets searching for food and water as she traveled into Concepcion. She also said people had mixed feelings about the military presence. "Some find it kind of shocking because they haven't seen the military in the streets since the Pinochet dictatorship," Murphy said. "Other people say that they're glad to see them because of the disorder that was starting to become commonplace."
Efforts to get an assessment of the full extent of damage were complicated by continuing aftershocks that have done more damage and forced thousands of people to set up makeshift tent camps rather than return to their homes.
"If you're inside your house, the furniture moves," said Monica Aviles, pulling a shawl around her shoulders as she sat next to a fire across the street from her apartment building. As if to punctuate her fear, an aftershock set off shuddering and groaning sounds for blocks around.
In Santiago, there were only "pockets of devastation" Time magazine reporter Eben Harrell told NPR.
Harrell said the destruction was largely confined to the historic districts, but that more modern buildings — engineered to survive earthquakes — had fared much better.
State television showed scenes of devastation in coastal towns and on Robinson Crusoe Island, where the tsunami reportedly drove almost 2 miles into the town of San Juan Bautista. Officials said at least five people were killed there and more were missing.
Defense Minister Francisco Vidal acknowledged the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning after the quake hit before dawn Saturday. Port captains in several coastal towns did, saving what Vidal called hundreds of lives. Thirty minutes passed between the quake and a wave that inundated coastal towns.
In the town of Constitucion, 350 people were reported dead after the killer wave struck.
"The tsunami destroyed almost everything on the seafront, [and] the center of the town was completely destroyed," Constitucion Mayor Hugo Tilleria told state television. "This means lots of people still haven't been accounted for."
The U.S. ambassador to Chile said officials were having difficulty getting information from the most devastated region of Concepcion.
In an interview by telephone with CBS on Monday, Ambassador Paul Simons said, "We do not have any confirmed reports of Americans who have died." He added that while officials have been able to contact "a few" of the estimated 1,000 Americans in Chile, "information is still very, very scarce."
He said the Concepcion area has suffered "major devastation" but life was returning to normal in Santiago.
Michael Black, who works for the Christian relief group World Vision, said that damage to infrastructure was making it hard to get aid supplies into the worst-hit areas in and around the capital.
"Roads are heavily damaged, especially the highway that surrounds Santiago," Black said. He added that his organization has a warehouse in Bolivia, but that it would be a challenge getting supplies to communities it needs to reach."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton planned to briefly visit Santiago on Tuesday as part of a five-nation Latin America trip. Speaking to reporters while traveling in Montevideo, Uruguay, she said she would be bringing communications equipment to Chile.
Clinton said the Chilean government had asked her to proceed with the visit so that she could "assess whatever else they might need and immediately begin the process of providing it."