Opinion: Repairing Chile is a matter for the state

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.

Authorities will have to look into why fairly new infrastructure, such as highways and Santiago’s international airport, suffered significant damage. We do not know yet if the failure was in construction or design, but we need to learn why this happened. Contracts for infrastructure concessions will have to be enforced, in particular with respect to insurance policies and responsibilities for repair costs.

While it seems that most new buildings resisted major damage, some of them, such as a 15-story building that collapsed in Concepcion, appear to be damaged beyond repair and have become the face of rescue efforts. One needs to ask whether all building codes have been properly enforced.

Finally, the question I believe will haunt us all: Was there a tsunami alarm? The rest of the countries around the Pacific had more time to prepare, but what happened in the small towns and villages along the central and south-central coast in Chile? The government has already admitted that there was a mistake regarding the tsunami alert. In fact, there were reports of high tides for several hours. But even if the government had had the correct information, are there mechanisms in place to alert everyone about the risks?

In some cases, people seem to have been completely unaware of the tsunami. In other cities, the reports point to spontaneous reactions, which helped prevent further damage. Maybe Chile needs a more advanced warning and evacuation system so that even without an alarm, people know what to do if there is a risk of tsunami. Just keep in mind that the center that coordinates the response to tsunamis in the Pacific was developed after the Valdivia earthquake in 1960 — the strongest earthquake ever recorded.

This certainly is not going to be the last earthquake Chile suffers. We know they happen, so we should be prepared. I feel sorry that so many are dead, my thoughts are with their families.

Nevertheless, I trust the state will continue to rise to the occasion, and I expect the country to make significant progress soon. The availability of contingency funds and the sound situation of the fiscal finances in Chile will certainly help move the country along its path to recovery.

There is an immediate challenge for the newly elected president, Sebastian Pinera, and Congress. Ultimately, dealing with the consequences of this earthquake and improving preparedness for future emergencies are matters of state, irrespective of political parties.

Jose Tessada is a post-doctoral fellow at the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He is a native of Chile and has recently written on the role of the state in rebuilding Haiti after its earthquake.