Chilean President Michelle Bachelet this week deflecting criticism that her government was slow to respond to one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes in a century.
Four days after the 8.8-magnitude quake killed more than 800 people in central Chile, police and troops have managed to quell looting and violence in the hard-hit city of Concepcion, which was rocked by back-to-back aftershocks on March 3 that sent people fleeing to higher ground fearing a new tsunami.
With tensions still running high in the disaster area, an emotional Bachelet urged the population to remain calm in the face of Chile’s worst natural disaster in 50 years. She also sought to allay concerns of potential food and fuel shortages.
“There is enough food and therefore we must remain calm. There is also enough fuel, there is no risk of shortages,” she said in a nationally televised speech.
Hours later, she took her message to the country’s radio waves, calling on Chileans to band together to rebuild what has long been one of Latin America’s most stable economies.
“Be confident … Chile is going to stand on its feet again,” Bachelet, a popular president who is in her last days in office, said as she broke into tears.
The government on Wednesday raised the official death toll from the quake and ensuing tsunami along Chile’s coastline to 802. Bachelet said the number is sure to rise further.
An 18-hour curfew remained in place in Concepcion, Chile’s second-biggest city, and 14,000 troops patrolled the streets in hard-hit areas to keep order and oversee aid distribution.
Military trucks and helicopters delivered food and water to devastated areas, while rescue crews searched coastal hamlets north of Concepcion for any survivors trapped in the debris.
In Constitucion, one of several coastal villages nearly wiped out by the quake and tsunami, some reports put the number of missing as high as 500. The town, with a population of about 40,000, accounts for almost half of the official death toll.
Bachelet asked Chileans to avoid stockpiling food so supplies could be distributed fairly. But the plea fell on deaf ears in Constitucion, where prices for foodstuffs such as flour and sugar have skyrocketed because of hoarding and looting.
“Here at the corner store, the owner is selling things at three times the price,” said Amelia Quipainao, 52, who organised a soup kitchen for people who lost their homes.
Chilean emergency officials and the military blamed each other for not clearly warning coastal villages of tsunamis, angering survivors who lost relatives and friends in the massive waves that followed the quake.
“People died because of a lack of information,” said Valder Vera, a survivor in Dichato, a small fishing village north of Concepcion that was destroyed.
ECONOMY TO TAKE A HIT
Bachelet, whose approval rating hit a lofty 83 per cent in February, has faced mounting criticism for declining offers of international aid in the initial hours after the quake.
She acknowledged that rescue efforts were slow to start but defended the government’s actions in the days since.
NASA said its models showed that the February 27 quake was so powerful it shifted the earth’s axis by about 8 cm and slightly shortened the length of a day, by just over one millionth of a second.
In the southern province of Nuble, some people were still camping out on high ground and refused to return to their hometowns for fear of aftershocks and tsunamis.
At least two strong aftershocks were felt on March 3 in the capital Santiago, which suffered less damage from the prior quake. A sense of normalcy was returning to the city, with flights slowly resuming at the airport after being completely shut down for almost two days after the quake.
The disaster hit Chile, the world’s leading copper producer, just as it was bouncing back from a recession triggered by the global economic downturn.
Still, ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service maintained a positive outlook on Chile’s sovereign ratings, highlighting the strength of its public finances.
Most of the country’s huge copper mines, a backbone of the economy, have returned to normal activity, easing supply fears that sent global copper prices sharply higher on Monday, though the country’s largest oil refinery could be down for a month.
Incoming Finance Minister Felipe Larrain told Reuters on Wednesday he was studying options to fund reconstruction. Analysts say the next government, which takes office on March 11, may be forced to issue debt, tap into savings from copper boom times or seek credit lines.
Some analysts estimate the damage could cost up to US$30 billion, nearly 15 per cent of Chile’s gross domestic product.
The disaster poses a daunting challenge for billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, a conservative who was elected president in January, ending 20 years of center-left rule.
Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to 6 per cent per year, but could see his government undermined if reconstruction efforts drag.
The economy had been expected to grow around 5 per cent this year but analysts see the quake eroding between one and two percentage points off that forecast.