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Tsunami multiplied Chile's devastation

An empty casket lies amid mud and rubble in Constitucion, Chile, where more than 500 are thought to have been killed.

Associated Press

An empty casket lies amid mud and rubble in Constitucion, Chile, where more than 500 are thought to have been killed.

CONSTITUCION, Chile — Sergio Poblete stared in lingering disbelief Monday at a once-pleasant park transformed into a wasteland of debris — twisted cars and trucks, felled trees, parts of houses and a 20-foot fishing boat pushed half a mile from its river berth.

"We are alone, abandoned," lamented Poblete, a machine operator who, like most everyone else in this coastal city, has seen his orderly life shattered by Saturday's massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

This city of 55,000, whose death toll is expected to exceed 500, may well be the community hardest hit by the magnitude 8.8 quake. The temblor was quickly followed by Pacific Ocean waves that officials here say reached 30 feet in height.

Many here complain that the national government has failed to respond adequately to the double-blow that struck their lumber and fishing town.

"Here we suffered twice — the earthquake and the maremoto (tsunami)," said Cesar Arrellano, a municipal comptroller in the relatively unscathed City Hall. "It seems everyone has forgotten about us. Maybe that's because we're out of contact."

President Michelle Bachelet and other officials have expressed grave concern for the fate of much-larger Concepcion, a little more than 160 miles down the coast. Residents here say the primary aid thus far has been a heightened police presence and some rescue units. The earthquake knocked down and damaged hundreds of buildings here while the ensuing tsunami cut a mile and a half swath of destruction through the town, dragging everything and everyone in its wake as the El Maule River surged with seawater. The once heavily populated coastal zone is now a jumbled mass of debris, and more than 90 percent of the city's downtown buildings were destroyed.

On Monday, there was no electricity, phone service or running water, and bodies remain trapped in collapsed buildings. The dead are being laid out in silver-colored vinyl bags on a school basketball court that has been transformed into a makeshift morgue. The country's death toll reached 723 and was expected to rise.

Chile has always been considered Latin America's most earthquake-ready country. Its building codes are robust. Its disaster manual is thick, laying out all the scenarios for the temblors that are a regular part of life.

But despite all that, the powerful quake has left the country reeling. Collapsed bridges and damaged roadways have made it difficult to even get to some areas. Downed phone lines and cellular towers have made it impossible to communicate. And many residents in the most damaged areas have not only taken food from supermarkets but also robbed banks, set fires and engaged in other forms of lawlessness.

The quake has also exposed the fact, experts say, that although Chile is one of the most developed countries in the region, it is also one of the most unequal, with huge pockets of urban and rural poor, who suffered most in the quake.

People ran from a nearby market carrying provisions, saying they were acting out of necessity, not greed.

"I'm a middle-class woman, I would never do anything like this," said a woman who gave her name as Pilar, as she scampered away with soft drinks, lettuce and canned goods. "We all have families to feed and there is no one to help."

Police sought to maintain some order. Authorities declared a 7 p.m. curfew. Some shop owners guarded their wares, though most markets already have been ransacked.

In Geneva, U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centers.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was bringing 20 satellite phones as a first piece of a much larger U.S. aid package. Argentina said it was sending six aircraft loaded with a field hospital, 55 doctors and water treatment plants, and Brazil said it was sending a field hospital and rescue teams. Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, visited the capital of Santiago to express his solidarity.

Bachelet said authorities were flying 320 tons of food, water and other basics into the quake zone.

Most markets in Concepcion were ransacked by people desperate for food, water, toilet paper, gasoline and other essentials, prompting authorities to send in troops. When a small convoy of armored vehicles drove along a downtown street, bystanders applauded, shouting: "Finally! Finally!"

Throughout Talcahuano, stick-wielding residents barricaded streets with tires and rubble to protect their homes in the absence of law enforcement.

Downtown, eight suspected looters knelt outside a pharmacy, their hands on their heads, as a police officer taunted them.

"Are you praying?" he shouted. "I don't hear you. Pray."

Information from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

Tsunami multiplied Chile's devastation 03/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 11:23pm]
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