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Chilean Earthquake Toll Passes 800; Aid Yet to Reach Many Devastated Areas

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The death toll from Saturday’s massive earthquake in Chile has reached close to 800 and is expected to rise. Aid has yet to reach many areas hardest hit by the quake, including the southern city of Concepción, which accounts for nearly half of the death toll. We go to Chile to discuss the latest developments with Eva Salinas, editor of the Santiago Times. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Chile to speak with another woman, unfortunately about the horror that’s taken place in Chile. The death toll from Saturday’s massive earthquake has reached close to 800 and is expected to rise. An estimated two million people were affected by the earthquake, which was the worst disaster to hit Chile in half a century.

Aid has yet to reach many areas hardest hit by the quake, including the southern city of Concepción, which accounts for nearly half the death toll. Officials estimate that between 100 to 500 people in the city are still missing. Many residents are short of food and have seen their water and electricity supplies cut off.

Security in the city remains a key concern after shops and homes were looted Monday and police made a large number of arrests. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet deployed some 14,000 troops to the area, and an eighteen-hour curfew has been imposed.

One city resident called on Bachelet to come to Concepción herself, instead of sending soldiers.

    CONCEPCIÓN RESIDENT: [translated] She should come. She should come here. We need help. We don’t have anything here. We are wearing borrowed clothes. We have nothing. We need help.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Bachelet has held a news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Santiago and pledged US support. Bachelet, who will be replaced by President-elect Sebastián Piñera in two weeks, said reconstruction would be costly.

    PRESIDENT MICHELLE BACHELET: [translated] There are international experts who have spoken of 30 billion US dollars. But really we believe that we need to have more information to be able to do a complete cost analysis. One of the topics I have discussed with Secretary of State Clinton is the possibility to look — and I will discuss this with the President-elect, as well — the possibility to count on funds or credit on favorable terms, to be able to begin the reconstruction, which is going to take a long time and be very expensive.

AMY GOODMAN: Many Chileans have complained that
scores of deaths could have been avoided had the government responded faster. The earthquake set off a tsunami a few hours later that killed many who survived the quake.

Despite the devastation, many say the human and economic costs could have been a lot worse, given the size of the earthquake, one of the strongest ever recorded in history. In fact, scientists say the 8.8-magnitude quake was so powerful it slightly shifted the earth’s axis and shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds. At a briefing at UN headquarters in New York, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Chief for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg said the disaster could have been far worse.

    CATHERINE BRAGG: Yes, the country is very well prepared. It has one of the strongest building codes. But at the same time, I don’t think any country can be prepared for an 8.8-magnitude earthquake totally adequately. It is, I think, if I’m not mistaken, the fifth most severe earthquake ever recorded in human history. So, no matter how prepared you are, there are going to be repercussions from something as big as this.

    It is true that there are some hospitals that are damaged, some that have collapsed. That’s why the government is asking for field hospitals to be put in — as their very targeted requirements that they have asked the international community to help with, because they do determine that it is an area that is needed.

AMY GOODMAN: For the latest news, we go now to Chile. We’re joined by Eva Salinas, the editor of the Santiago Times. She’s speaking to us from Santiago.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You’re not at the epicenter, Eva, of the earthquake, but tell us what you have seen. What have you been reporting? What has the Santiago Times been printing?

EVA SALINAS: Hi there.

Well, as you just mentioned, we’re about six hours, what normally is a six-hour drive, to the epicenter. But of course Santiago was still affected. And it’s unbelievable, the spin-off, really from — within the city here, what we’re seeing is, of course, there was minimal damage to a lot of buildings and severe damage to a few. But what’s happening on the outskirts of Santiago, anyway, is a lot of safety and security concerns within some of the poorer comunas, the neighborhoods where there normally aren’t a lot of police, and so there’s a lot of looting of shops. There’s one neighborhood, in particular, that I’ve spoken to some residents there that are keeping watch all night long, bonfires on the end of every street, because they’re still out of power. And this is in Santiago. So, all the way down to where the earthquake has hit hardest, it’s about a 500-kilometer span where there’s been damage and are really, really feeling some strong effects of the quake.

Now, right in the center near the epicenter — Concepción, Constitución, Talca, right on the Pacific coast there — communication has been really, really difficult. It’s impossible to call by phone. And I did manage to speak with someone there yesterday in Concepción. He’s working as a translator. He told me that it’s not maybe a matter of communication in that, you know, the networks are down, even though the electricity is down, but no one can recharge their phone. Maybe all the cell phones are dead just because, you know, they’ve been out of power since Saturday. But I was able to get in touch with him.

He said, right now, you know, when the military descended on Monday, because of all the looting that was going on, it did put a stop to it quite quickly. But there is a curfew in place from 6:00 p.m. until 12:00 noon. Most of the arrests are simply because people are out without police permission. So I think the violence and the looting has calmed down.

Some of the buildings that were set on fire by looters Sunday and Monday are still burning. People are separated from their families. A lot have moved up onto the hills, without water, without food. It’s, you know, day four. They haven’t been reached by aid. They don’t really know what’s going on. So there’s an eerie stillness to Concepción, where about 15 percent of the buildings have actually completely collapsed, and many are on their last legs.

AMY GOODMAN: Eva Salinas, what about Bachelet’s decision to deploy 14,000 troops to Concepción?

EVA SALINAS: Well, I think — I think it has helped in terms of the security and safety of the city. Certainly, the looting and the bit of the chaos that initially ensued didn’t help, you know, to comfort people. But it’s not feeding anyone. You know, the necessities that are needed, the water and food, that’s still really, really slow to get down there.

I think there is a bit of a fear. People — just talking to a lot of people, people are a bit concerned and puzzled why that took so long. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a fear to be affiliated with, of course, the Pinochet era and the military dictatorship, but that’s certainly a very strong sentiment in the country, and that runs really, really deep. So I don’t know if that was a fear to bring in those troops right away.

Of course, the same navy went to Haiti so quickly and, you know, took a while to get down there Saturday and Sunday, even to notify those who — about the tsunami, of course, which I think could have been expected much, much quicker. Even more powerful earthquake hit in 1960 with a huge tsunami that followed immediately afterward. So this is a country that has experienced this before, and experienced worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what this means in the context of the changing administrations, Michelle Bachelet going out, and that call for her to go to Concepción?

EVA SALINAS: I’m not sure what it would do for her to go to Concepción. You know, certainly, her presence — she’s had a very high approval rating as she leaves office. It’s been over 80 percent. So I think, in general, people feel comforted by her.

The fact that the government’s in transition is a huge concern. And I think it’s a very unique case, in that there are fears, for instance, that — are the current members of, for instance, the National Emergency Service, are they giving their 100 percent when, in one week’s time, they may lose their job? So, it’s going to be very interesting, and we’re going to be watching really closely to see how they make that transition.

You know, you have President Bachelet going down. You have President-elect Piñera going down. What kind of promises are they both making? And how do you transfer power, and how do you transfer the positions, such as the Minister of Health, to someone who doesn’t have perhaps a political background and who’s taking on the job for the first time? And I don’t know how that’s done. So, it is a big concern, and everyone is going to be watching that really closely.

AMY GOODMAN: Eva Salinas, I want to thank you for joining us, editor of the Santiago Times, speaking to us from Santiago, Chile.

EVA SALINAS: You’re welcome.

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