Chile earthquake: How loss of life, damage was minimized

The earthquake that rumbled off northern Chile on Tuesday night is a bracing reminder of the country’s vulnerability to seismic activity.

As of Wednesday afternoon, official reports said six people died in the magnitude-8.2 quake, which was expected to unleash a tsunami that has largely failed to emerge. Flooding has been reported in some cities.

Given the intensity of the quake, authorities have expressed surprise at the relatively minimal damage.

Tuesday’s event is the most significant seismic activity in the region since a magnitude-8.8 quake and ensuing tsunami in central Chile in 2010 killed more than 500 people, destroyed 220,000 homes and produced an estimated $30 billion in damage. (That quake also released enough energy to slightly alter the planet’s rotation.)

While both quakes had a human cost, the loss of life Tuesday was minimized as a result of steps Chile has taken to protect its people and structures in the event of an earthquake.

Here’s a look at what Chile seems to be doing right when it comes to earthquake preparedness.

After the major 1960 earthquake, Chile developed a national strategy to improve the ability of buildings to withstand quakes. It developed a seismic design code for new buildings, and homes and offices are now constructed to sway with seismic waves rather than try to resist them.

Experts say it’s largely due to the fortitude of the country’s buildings that the 2010 earthquake did not have anywhere near the casualty count of Haiti, where a lower-magnitude quake (7.0) that same year led to a significantly higher death count (an estimated 220,000).

According to a 2011 report by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Chile’s strict building codes “continue to play a large part in protecting people."

Those who have studied the 2010 quake in Chile say it was not the earthquake itself that was responsible for the largest loss of human life, but the ensuing tsunami that breached the coast and led to widespread flooding. Chile’s navy was heavily criticized for giving conflicting reports about the severity of the tsunami, and ultimately for failing to issue a warning.

Since 2010, the country has installed a more comprehensive tsunami warning system, with sirens set up in coastal areas. The sirens consist of a control panel and a battery backup, and can be sounded by the Chilean navy whenever it identifies a significant tsunami risk.

The updated system was used to warn people of a possible tsunami after Tuesday night's earthquake.

During a disaster such as an earthquake, citizens eagerly await word on the continuing risk, what assistance is coming and the timing of relief efforts in different regions. One of the criticisms of the Chilean government’s immediate response to the 2010 quake was that there was poor communication with the public regarding what was going on and what relief efforts were underway.

In a 2011 report, the Chilean government acknowledged that after the 2010 quake, government “communications were down for more than 12 hours.”

To mitigate this problem for future quakes, the country has installed an alert system created by Israeli company eVigilo. The firm developed a geolocation-based system that, in a time of need, can transmit survival information to citizens through a variety of platforms, from television and radio broadcasts to cellphone calls, SMS texts, emails, and even digital roadside billboards.

In the days after the 2010 quake, there were reports of widespread looting and theft in grocery stores and gas stations in cities such as Concepcion and Talcahuano, which were close to the quake’s epicentre. Although the government eventually sent in police forces to stem rioting and imposed a curfew, officials were criticized for not anticipating the possibility of civil unrest.

In an effort to avoid bedlam, President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency in the region immediately after the earthquake hit on Tuesday, and dispatched anti-riot police to join 300 soldiers already deployed to prevent looting in the affected cities.