Reflections on the Chile Earthquake and Disaster Response

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ImageSo 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.”

ImageIn 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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