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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.

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.