Chile Steps up Search for Victims in Quake-hit Areas

March 3, 2010

Chilean rescue crews fanned out with sniffer dogs Wednesday around quake-ravaged cities and villages, some still hoping to find survivors and others to begin the daunting task of recovering the bodies buried under mountains of rubble.

Four days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked south-central Chile and killed nearly 800 people, police and troops managed to quell the looting and violence that brought chaos to the hard-hit city of Concepcion, 70 miles southeast of the epicenter.

An 18-hour nightly curfew remained in place in Concepcion, one of a handful of cities and villages where some 7,000 soldiers were patrolling the streets to keep order and ensure that food and water were properly distributed.

With aid now flowing to the population in a more orderly fashion, rescue crews stepped up the search in towns from Concepcion further north to Constitucion for any survivors trapped in the debris.

So far, 795 people have been confirmed dead, either killed by one of the world’s biggest earthquakes in a century or the tsunami it triggered along Chile’s coastline.

The death toll is likely to rise, with some reports putting the number of missing as high as 500 in Constitucion alone. The city, with a population of nearly 40,000, accounts for nearly half the official death toll.

Officials cautioned that many of the missing may have fled to safety and have been unable to contact relatives because of damage to telephone lines.

“It’s important to point out that a lot of people may be cut off because of the communications problems,” said Victor Hugo Illanes, an official at the National Emergency Office in the capital, Santiago.

Officially, the government puts the number of missing at 19, based on specific cases that have been reported to the police. But officials acknowledge the figure could be much higher.

With looting now largely under control, authorities dispatched crews with dogs trained to locate the dead, to start the grim task of pulling bodies from the rubble.

Many Chileans complained that scores of deaths could have been avoided had the government responded more decisively to the quake, which set off a roaring tsunami a few hours later that killed many along the coastline.

The government of President Michelle Bachelet has acknowledged that rescue efforts have been slow, in part because of mangled roads, downed bridges and power cuts. But officials also misjudged the extent of the damage, initially declining offers for international aid.

During a brief visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered 20 satellite phones to help in relief efforts and pledged more aid. Bachelet also reached out to other countries, asking for desalination plants and power generators.

The disaster hit Chile, the world’s leading copper producer and Latin America’s most stable economy, just as it was emerging from a recession caused by the global economic downturn.

Some analysts estimate the damage could cost Chile up to $30 billion, or about 15 percent of its gross domestic product. But Bachelet stressed it is too early to quantify the damage while the focus remains on relief efforts.

The disaster poses a daunting challenge for billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, who will be sworn in as Chile’s next president on March 11.

Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to an average of 6 percent a year and create a million new jobs. He said the quake had not altered his economic goals.

(Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero in Santiago and Terry Wade in Constitucion. Writing by Todd Benson, editing by Chris Wilson)

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