Reflections on the Chile Earthquake and Disaster Response

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So many feelings and thoughts as I watch and digest the earthquake in Chile…some of them very relevant to understanding the importance of disaster preparedness in South Asia, a region that is exposed to so many natural shocks.

Immediate feelings of admiration and pride. The incredible reaction from Michele Bachelet as the leader of the whole country: less than an hour after the earthquake at the center to manage disasters, gathering the facts, coming out to tell the people of Chile what was happening, and taking a helicopter to the worst affected areas. She was not dramatic. Quite knowledgeable, deferring to the experts on things she didn’t understand, and empathic throughout. Not looking down on people, not overly reassuring, but holding. One felt glad to have her as a President in this moment; sure she would do the right thing. No ego and the right tone.

Then one could see the maturity of local government and institutions, like the police. Around 2000 police were dedicated to protect from looting the houses that had collapsed so their inhabitants could go to shelters. Another police group, directing the traffic so people could slowly make their way to the different cities that were truncated in the main highways. And the incredible story of a town of 20,000 people that were saved from the Tsunami- like waves, because the police asked them to flee to the mountains immediately after the earthquake. And the head of the disaster agency, that could not predict whether there would be aftershocks of similar magnitudes. She was calm, reassuring but also honest: “with nature you can never predict exactly what will happen.”

In addition, the Ministers of Interior and Transport would explain very clearly why they were following a certain protocol. Enough rules to have some sense of organization in the midst of chaos. But not so much that they didn’t make sense, like in so many bureaucracies. And finally the helping hand, as looting started the response is that supermarkets will give food for free, but managed by the local authorities.

Although events are still unfolding and still things could go wrong, for now each community gathered around their mayors and helped each other through the devastation. Each leader playing their role, and each human being rising to the challenge. In my home, my brother played the caretaking role (disconnecting electricity and gas, buying essential groceries). But my mother was the glue, the story teller that helped us, her children around the world, to find out what was happening. My sister, who could have played that role, was in hospital, recovering from surgery and had to be evacuated to a different pavilion because the place where she was suffered damage (including bursting pipes). My mother was also setting the tone. “We had many things broken (porcelains, mirrors, and glasses) but all that doesn’t matter, we are grateful to be alive and unharmed”.

So that is the deeper story. So many people that realized that they are grateful to be alive and that material things don’t really matter. Somebody interviewed said that during the earthquake he felt like a giant had taken him by the arms, and shaken him. Another woman in Concepcion said that it felt like the movie 2012. Another felt this was the end of the world.

So I come out of this intense experience feeling that the earthquake has made me embrace being Chilean, after so many years away. It has helped me value the incredible strong society and institutions that it has. And it has made me wonder, is this earthquake a wake-up call for what really matters?

Photo Credit: Alex Ibanez/Chilean Presidency/AP

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Suman Ghimire
March 02, 2010

This gives us valuable information about preparedness and role of local government and institutions after earthquakes. Our country is also considered to be very vulnerable to such disaster, and we also need to pave way for matured preparedness.

Thanks for sharing.
Suman.

Khalid Aziz
March 03, 2010

The Chilean President has in one gesture portrayed what leadership is all about. She is a great President. In 2009 we in the NWFP in Pakistan also witnessed a similar leadership whem more than 500,000 men, women and children were forced to leave their homes and were hosted by the communities and 9 government camps. In this instance we saw communities rise to the challenge and support the less fortunate.It was an instance where collective leadership of the community and some government functionary was evident. The result was that the bad consequences were mitigated. The NWFP effort would have been more monumental had a top leader joined the relief effort. There is no question that relief efforts can be more effectiveif the provincial or national symbols of leadership come to the affected area and lead.

Priya Goel
March 02, 2010

Well written, from a leader. Truly makes one think about the important things in life and be grateful for life itself.

Pratiksha Jaiswal
March 05, 2010

yet Nepal need have huge disaster preparedness programto save life if there is occurance of earthquake like Chile.

Paulina
March 03, 2010

Excellent blog entry Isabel. As a Chilean I share with you the shock of seeing our country destroyed, and the awe of seeing our institutions taking care of citizen, and citizen working together to rebuild the country. I am extremely proud of being Chilean. Today more than ever.

Marjorie
March 03, 2010

Isabel, first of all, I am glad to hear your family is fine and that you have been able to contact them. My mom and brothers are here, thank GOD, but the rest is still there. We have accounted for everyone except one aunt, it is just a matter of time before we are able to get through the telephone lines. I have always been proud of being Chilean, our country has gone through so many disasters, some caused by mother nature and others by mankind, but we have always pulled through. Also, we have such a big giant heart that when others have needed us, we have been there. All I ask is that all who are willing, pray for those in our country who are still trying to find their children, mothers, husbands, sisters and brothers, and that those who have already lost loved ones, get the consolation and acceptance they need to understand what happened and be able to move on. I AM A PROUD CHILEAN, TODAY MORE THAN EVER.

Anonymous
March 03, 2010

I beg to differ, but watching the news from Chile there has been a lot of criticism on how the government handled the emergency. Confusion regarding a tsunami alert, delay in declaring State of Catastrophe, at first rejecting and then accepting international aid, looting, etc. I was surprised not to see rescue efforts in a clearly identified toppled building in Concepcion on Saturday or any aid delivery on Sunday. I am not an expert, but this has made me wonder if there is such thing as an Emergency Response Plan in Chile or if something failed along the line when implementing it.

Anonymous
March 03, 2010

there was an obvious rush to judge the actions of the chilean authorities as calm, heroic and organized. what is emerging is a situation where there is lack of coordination between the outgoing and incoming administrations, lethargy on the part of govt. to swallow their pride and accept aid, looting, no tsunami warning (even the navy apologized to the public), many buildings that collapsed are quite new which makes one wonder about the so called 'best' practices in building codes, etc. so an obvious lesson is not to rush and pour praise where it is really not due. but to be cautious and wait for a full-view picture to emerge. it may not be as pretty as we would like it to be...

Patricia
March 03, 2010

The level of response was not good and not sufficient. Read piece today on New York Times: "SANTIAGO, Chile — As aid began to trickle out to the southern areas of Chile pounded by last weekend’s earthquake, President Michelle Bachelet struggled to respond to a growing torrent of criticism here that her government has responded with too little, too late."

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/world/americas/04chile.html

Obviously Ms. Guerrero wrote the piece in the heat of the moment and we can appreciate her personal reflections and strong emotions, but I would not rush to call the response a good one without getting the real facts first. There are other reasons why Ms. Guerrero should be proud of being Chilean.

Anonymous
March 04, 2010

Very good piece. Thank you for sharing. You are absolutely right when you say that things could still go wrong and this should keep the authorities alert moving ahead.

An applause at this stage will encourage those undertaking this difficult task.

Anonymous
March 04, 2010

Then one could see the maturity of local government and institutions, like the police. Around 2000 police were dedicated to protect from looting the houses that had collapsed so their inhabitants could go to shelters. Another police group, directing the traffic so people could slowly make their way to the different cities that were truncated in the main highways. And the incredible story of a town of 20,000 people that were saved from the Tsunami- like waves, because the police asked them to flee to the mountains immediately after the earthquake. And the head of the disaster agency, that could not predict whether there would be aftershocks of similar magnitudes. She was calm, reassuring but also honest: “with nature you can never predict exactly what will happen.”

Hema
March 05, 2010

this gives very good example of integration of activities at the urgent disaster situation. communication and dissemination of information is vital component.

isabel
March 09, 2010

Enjoyed reading the different views on one event we all watched together. Also enjoyed the attached blog by Dani Kaufman, another chilean, reflecting this from a governance perspective. Highly recommend it.

http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2010/0305_chile_earthquake_kaufmann.a…

Marjolaine
August 08, 2010

Thank you Isabel GUerrero I am moved to see a chilean national in the WOrld Bank. All these complicated people in Nepal...I hope Chile will overcome the disaster I am proud to see latina women power! We are so strong and simple we forget we are wonderful. I wish Bachelet remained..
sorry our America Latina has to suffer revolution after revolution and there is no end to exile.
We all pray for fast recovery and humanitarian help. Once in the life the fact that chilean people are well organized wil help at least. in admiration.
Forza Chile.