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Opinion: Repairing Chile is a matter for the state

It has been comforting to see the government take charge in the earthquake's aftermath, but there is still room for improvement.

Residents recover their belongings from their home destroyed by a major earthquake in Talca, March 1, 2010. Chile's government scrambled on Monday to provide aid to thousands of homeless people in coastal towns devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunamis, as 10,000 troops patrolled to quell looting. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Not long ago, Mauricio Cardenas and I blogged after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti. This past Saturday, it was my home country Chile that suffered yet another devastating earthquake — this one ranking among the strongest ever recorded.

It was hard to wake up and read the news. Communication has not been easy. It took me hours to reach just one of my relatives in Santiago. I tried desperately to reach others and obtain more information. Days later, I am still trying to process the partial information available so far.

But I have been comforted to see the government, in particular President Michelle Bachelet, trying to assess the damage early on and calm the country. It was also comforting to see the Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (National Emergency Office) in action and the attention by local and international media to quickly report on the earthquake’s aftermath.

The government announced curfews almost immediately in the most affected regions, and the armed forces are already taking control of the situation. This is probably a response, at least in part, to the reports of looting in cities like Concepcion. If troops are needed to restore public order and facilitate the distribution of help and supplies, then I certainly applaud the government for doing what they think is best.

We certainly don't want Concepcion and other cities in the south of Chile to feel like Port-au-Prince in late January or New Orleans after Katrina. Providing security and guaranteeing the conditions for rescue operations and to help those affected are, I believe, the basic conditions needed after such a devastating event and should be the government’s priorities. I trust the government has decided to do what they thought was the best option.

Chile has a long history of earthquakes and has undoubtedly learned from all the previous ones. There will certainly be a lot to learn from this one. We can start now by asking the right questions: Can we improve? Can we do better next time?

Although I am not an engineer, it seems that the country has been fairly resilient and resistant to such a large quake. In Haiti, so much of the damage could have been prevented with stricter building codes, and Chile appears to have benefited from sound construction.

Still, the damage is not minimal. It is understandable that old buildings have suffered, but the fact that several hospitals collapsed is not reassuring.