Earthquakes in Chile: The National Response to Natural Disaster

Chile is mainly famous for things such as its national parks, unique plant and animal species, and the diversity of its climate zones; but it’s also known for the frequency and severity of earthquakes. Most people know enough to associate Chile with earthquakes, but what is less well-known is that Chile has successfully implemented world-class anti-seismic measures, dramatically reducing damages and fatalities.

The strongest earthquake ever recorded, between a 9.4 and 9.6 magnitude, occurred near Valdivia in 1960, leveling huge sections of the city and resulting in thousands of deaths. Starting in the 1970’s anti-seismic building codes were introduced, and these codes have been modified and improved as advances in structural engineering allowed for new ways to handle strong quakes. Now, builders use techniques such as shock absorbers at the bases of buildings, vibration control technology, and concrete reinforced with steel bars to minimize damage and fatalities. Almost all coastal cities have warning systems in place to notify people of the approach of a tsunami, as well as an evacuation plan.

Thanks in part to low levels of corruption, the requirements for roads, buildings, bridges, etc. are strictly enforced—and the payoff has been remarkable. In 1960, the total number of fatalities from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami was estimated between 1,000 and 6,000. In 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit near Concepción, killing about 600 people—only 30 of them in modern buildings. In Santiago, power and phone lines were restored within 5 hours of the quake.

Despite the fact that Chile has been the site of some of the biggest recorded earthquakes in history, it’s not as huge of an issue as you might think to the people who actually live here. Most of the earthquakes in Chile have little to no effect on daily life, tourism, or infrastructure; preparedness against earthquakes is built into the way people do things, and they know that the right preparation goes a long way. According to Christophe Smachtel, a UN humanitarian affairs officer based in Geneva who was part of the response to the 2010 earthquake, “Chile today has completely learned UN protocols and adapted them to local needs. Chile has become a showcase. In our global meetings (on earthquake preparation) Chile is now the example.”

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