Two years after Chile’s devastating earthquake, the failure to give a tsunami warning and a slow reconstruction effort are shaping politics ahead of the 2013 election to pick President Sebastian Pinera’s successor.
The magnitude-8.8 quake and the tsunami it unleashed before dawn on Feb. 27, 2010, destroyed 220,000 homes and washed away ports, riverfronts and seaside resorts. The government counted 524 dead, 181 of them killed by the tsunami.
The disaster presented unprecedented challenges and opportunities for Pinera, a conservative billionaire whose election ended 20 years of center-left rule in Chile when he succeeded Michelle Bachelet less than two weeks after the quake.
Seeking to cement his can-do image, Pinera committed his government to providing shelter for every victim within months and moving everyone into a decent home before the following winter.
Yet with Chile’s third post-quake winter approaching, 3,000 families still crowd into flimsy wooden shacks, and political coalitions on the right and left are looking to blame each other for quake failings with an eye on the November 2013 elections.
Pinera’s government this month praised a prosecutor’s request for charges of negligence leading to homicide against eight former officials of the civil protection and navy offices that botched the tsunami warnings in critical minutes and hours after the quake.
The president’s opponents portray the criminal case as a thinly disguised effort to assign political responsibility for the deaths to Bachelet. Bachelet, who has remained in the public eye leading the United Nations women’s agency, still enjoys 80 percent approval ratings and represents the center-left’s best hopes for recovering control of the government.
Chile’s early warning systems have been reinforced since the disaster, but post-quake analysis showed that key officials didn’t do all they could have to warn people of the danger based on available information.
The interior ministry’s national emergency office, ONEMI, blamed the navy’s hydrographic and oceanographic service, which is responsible for estimating tsunami dangers and notifying ONEMI. The navy office initially did issue a warning after the 3:34 a.m. quake, but then lifted it within the hour. But even during that period, ONEMI failed to order evacuations.
Thousands of people, familiar with Chile’s vulnerability to tsunamis, fled the coast nevertheless and saved themselves.
“Faced with a catastrophe, the first priority of a government, based on the available information and evidence, is to provide early and effective alerts and establish the necessary means to evacuate when danger exists,” Pinera said Friday at a ceremony at the naval base in Talcahuano, near the quake’s epicenter.
“Unfortunately on Feb. 27, 2010, we didn’t come through on this important work with the required effort and efficiency, and this error probably cost many human lives,” added Pinera, who like all Chilean presidents is serving a single four-year term.
While his center-right government focuses on the initial quake response, the center-left opposition is challenging the reconstruction achievements of his administration.
Pinera said that nearly 100 percent of infrastructure has been rebuilt, public buildings are 58 percent rebuilt and construction has begun on 136,000 homes to replace the 220,000 destroyed ones.
“We have been able to put 72,000 families into permanent homes,” he said, asserting that his government has solved 47 percent of the housing problems.
Opponents jumped on that as an admission that 148,000 families are still waiting, and challenged the 47 percent figure, saying it deceptively combines repairs and housing starts with finished homes. The actual number of finished homes is just 10,566, less than 11 percent of the total needed, said Laura Albornoz, interim president of the opposition Christian Democrat Party.
The number of families that will likely spend their third winter in shacks made of thin, poor-quality wood in camps that the government calls “villages” is down from 4,500 after the quake. The government has proposed a $310 subsidy to help them live with families or pay rent. Complicating their relocation is the fact that many lived in waterfront homes where the danger of another tsunami is too great to rebuild.
University of Berkeley architect Mary Comerio, an adviser to the United Nations on disaster recovery who toured Chile this month at the government’s invitation, said Pinera overpromised by vowing to complete reconstruction by the end of his term in March 2014.
“These are tough goals that would be difficult to achieve even in developed countries. In other countries the reconstruction can take 10 years,” she said.
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