On February 27, six weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc on Haiti, an 8.8-magnitude temblor struck just off the coast of Maule in Chile. A tsunami swept through the fishing village of Constitucion and other coastal towns. The quake, with an epicenter 70 miles from the country’s second-largest metropolis, Concepcion, and 186 miles from the capital of Santiago, shook the six major Chilean states and parts of Argentina.
More than 500 died, and the disaster caused more than $30 billion in damage, leaving more than 200,000 Chileans homeless and destroying about 20 percent of the country’s wine. The number of fatalities, though, was notably small in comparison to the horrors that befell Haiti. This wealthy country, well aware of the seismically active fault located on the sea floor, had much more rigorous earthquake standards for its structures. The outgoing government of Michelle Bachelet even refused international aid at first, asserting with pride that Chile had the resources to take care of itself.
Many Chileans, however, criticized Bachelet for being slow to act and for underestimating the damage. Others went after Chile’s navy and emergency management department for failing to warn coastal residents about the tsunami, a mistake that cost hundreds of lives. Looting spread across the devastated cities. Still, the government and local organizations, which eventually accepted foreign aid, were able to build shacks and temporary schools, and to provide toilets, drinking water, food, and clothes.
That said, some quake refugees still live in the tent cities, and feel their situation has been overshadowed by a man-made disaster that captivated the world: The 33 miners who emerged alive after spending 68 days trapped underground.
The government of President Sebastian Pinera (who took office two weeks after the quake) and the Chilean National Congress insist that more than 90 percent of hospitals, ports, roads, and schools damaged in the quake have been rebuilt or made functional. Pinera’s government has promised $8.4 billion in recovery money, and Congress passed a $1 billion construction package in October, so that within two or three years, most of the survivors who lost their homes will receive government-sponsored housing.
One scientific phenomenon captivated people’s attention: NASA scientists speculate that this quake — the fifth largest ever recorded — was so strong that it may have shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds (a little more than one-millionth of a second). Even odder: The temblor may have shifted the entire city of Concepcion 10 feet to the west; Santiago, 11 inches to the southwest; and Buenos Aires, 1 inch to the west.