Chile, similarities and differences in the national response to the 2010 and 2014 earthquakes and tsunamis

A little over four years and two months after the 2010 disaster, on the night of April 1, an 8.2 earthquake struck Chile again. The contexts in which the two disasters occurred have a number of interesting similarities that make a brief comparison a helpful mechanism to identify some of the changes in Chile’s disaster management capacity. Similar to F27, the 2014 earthquake epicenter was on the ocean, this time about 90 miles southwest of Cuya, off the coast of Tarapaca, north of Chile. The earthquake also triggered a tsunami and occurred not far from the transition in federal administration; while F27 hit Chile right at the end of Michelle Bachelet’s first term, the 2014 disaster occurred three weeks after the first Chilean female president sworn in for her second time in office.

Although lower in magnitude than F27, the 2014 event is one of the 10 most powerful earthquakes to affect an inhabited area in the last 50 years. Different sources like the Disaster Recovery Institute[1] suggest that the lessons learned by the population and government and the improvement of the institutions for disaster management in the four years after F27 helped mitigate the hardship.

  F27 2014
Magnitude 8.8 8.2
Energy (in number of atomic bombs) 130,000 11,500
Affected regions Valparaiso, Metropolitan, O’Higgins, Maule, Bío Bío, Araucanía Arica, Paranicota, Tarapica, Antofagasta
Tsunami (average height of the ocean tides in meters) 10 2.55
Deaths 547 6
Missing 46 0
Affected housing 500,000 Less than 12,000
Affected population 12,300,000 650,000
Cost (USD Millions) 30,000 600

Source: ONEMI, 2014

One main difference was the degree of decentralization of the response and, particularly, the role that the president serves in the aftermath of the disaster. After the F27 was felt, Bachelet traveled to the National Emergency Office (ONEMI) with the goal of coordinating the response. In 2014, the president remained in La Moneda monitoring the situation and serving as another spokesperson before the nation. Such difference is the result of the changes to the disaster management protocol that were announced on June 2013. According to the Ministry of Interior’s decree, a National Committee for Emergency Operations (COE, for its name in Spanish) should be formed in the occurrence of systemic shocks that cause “considerable damage to people and/or their goods, affecting all or part of the territory.” The Minister of Interior serves as head of the COE along with the director of the ONEMI, the undersecretary of the interior, the chief of staff of the army, and the national police chief.

The new protocol gives the ONEMI the capacity to declare preventive evacuation in the context of an earthquake with magnitude VII or over in the Mercalli scale. Such declaration remains active until precise information from the technical agencies is received. However, the return of the evacuated population upon the cancelation of the declaration is contingent to the required assessment by the ONEMI of the exposure to hazards triggered by the disaster, such as gas or water leaks.[2] In 2014, the alert would remain active for six hours and the government would suspend school classes in the affected areas as a preventive measure.[3]

It is important to highlight that ONEMI’s evacuation requires no confirmation from the Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service of the Chilean Navy (SHOA). This is a critical change to the regulation given the communication problems between the ONEMI and the SHOA that, arguably, slowed the alert and evacuation of the in-danger population in 2010. We remember that the responsibility of both agencies was material of public debate and legal scrutiny for the years to come after F27.[4] Between 2010 and 2013, the ONEMI formalized coordination protocols with the National Service of Geology and Mining, the Forest National Corporation, Chile’s Department of Weather, the Ministry of Works’ Department of Water, and the Army.[5] Additionally, to provide a structure to support interagency coordination, the ONEMI created the Alternative Regional Center for Emergency Operations and Early Warning in 2013.

The internal ONEMI communication network was also an area of improvement. A system of satellite telephony with the different agencies that comprise the national system of civil protection was set up. ONEMI regional directors and representatives, and some governors, mayors, and ministers received a satellite phone operated by the ONEMI. This endeavor was backed by a bill submitted by Piñera’s government and passed by the Congress on November 2010 that modified the General Law of Telecommunications. Under the new normative, the Undersecretariat of Telecommunications has full responsibility to coordinate the maintenance of the communications during the occurrence of national emergencies.

Likewise, the new protocol empowers the local government with further capacity for decision making in the definition of needs and the allocation of resources, which aims at achieving a more agile and targeted response and avoid the bureaucratic pitfalls experienced in the response to F27. As discussed in this book, such response was executed amid a high level of centralization. Therefore, the disruption of communications in the aftermath of the earthquake affected the evacuation of the victims and the coordination of the relief. The capacity of the Regional Warning Centers and the Regional Centers for Emergency Operations to organize preventive evacuation is an exemplar of the higher degree of autonomy at the local level that was fostered after 2010. Although the constitution of the centers for emergency operations was considered in the regulation in 2010, their roles and operation were not clear. In fact, in the aftermath of F27, the regional centers were not implemented and that fueled the fragmentation between the central and the local levels. Conversely, during the post-disaster minutes in April of 2014, the roles of each local representative were clearly acknowledged and assumed. [6]

One of the areas of significant emphasis in the years after F27 has been the capacity of the civil society to prepare for and recover from natural disasters. During Piñera’s administration, Chile Preparado (Chile Prepared), a formal training and planning program was created under the umbrella of ONEMI. Chile Preparado has carried out systematic tsunami and earthquake drills in addition to the distribution of graphic material and the projection of educational videos in venues like schools, theaters, and stadiums. The program also entailed the massive use of the social networks to keep in-real time communication with population.

The 2014 earthquake tested the improvements made by the ONEMI in terms of earthquake and tsunami monitoring. In 2010, although the SHOA had an emergency a 24/7 alert system, it depended on the Seismic Service of the University of Chile, which was closed by the time F27 hit the country. The ONEMI made a transfer to the University to make its service fully operational on a daily basis. Further investment and an agreement transformed the Seismic Service into the National Seismic Center (SSN, for its name in Spanish), an autonomous, legally constituted entity. Between 2010 and 2013, the ONEMI invested about US$ 40 million to install emergency sirens along the coastline. New equipment was added that included the 10 weather stations donated by the U.S. universities that comprise the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology and 24 stations built by the Chilean government. As a result, the time of geolocation of an earthquake epicenter and estimation of its magnitude was reduced from 20 minutes to three minutes and 17 seconds.[7] The new and improved policy instruments and communication protocols helped in April 2014 to achieve an effective preventive evacuation coordinated by the ONEMI and calculation and publication of the disaster data by the SSN and the SHOA.[8] Less than four minutes after the earthquake was felt in Iquique at 8:46 p.m., the SHOA had issue a tsunami warning and the ONEMI had asked the population to evacuate the northern coastline.

The issue of disaster declaration for F27 has been also a topic of controversy. In 2010, such presidential declaration came three days after the first seismic activity was felt. Some associate the images of looting, crime, and social upheaval to such a late response.[9] In April 2014, the disaster declaration was active less than two hours after the earthquake. [10] President Bachelet traveled to Iquique and immediately ordered the presence of the army and 100 troops of special-forces police to help maintain the public order.[11]

 

[1] Opazo Santis, Hector. Terremoto de abril de 2014 en Chile. Vamos por buen camino. Lecciones aprendidas. Disaster Recovery Institute. 2014

[2] ONEMI (2013). Decreto Supremo No 38/2011 del Ministerio del Interior. Comité Nacional de Operaciones de Emergencia (Comité Nacional).

[3] Medina, María Belén (2014). “El manejo de la Presidenta Bachelet: las diferencias entre el 27/F y el terremoto y tsunami del norte.” La Tercera.

[4] See for example El Mostrador (2010). “Tsunami en el Shoa: Destituyen a su Director y se anuncia su restructuración,”, 6 de Marzo de 2010, available in: http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2010/03/06/tsunami-en-el-shoa-destituyen-a-su-director-y-se-anunciareestructuracion/, and Bresciani, L.E., (2010). Chile 27F 2010: la catástrofe de la falta de planificación. Revista EURE 36 (108), 151-153.

[5] Presidencia de la República, La Reconstrucción de Chile, Gobierno de Chile, 2013.

[6] Opazo Santis, Hector (2014). Terremoto de abril de 2014 en Chile. Vamos por buen camino. Lecciones aprendidas. Disaster Recovery Institute.

[7] Presidencia de la República, La Reconstrucción de Chile, Gobierno de Chile, 2013.

[8] Opazo Santis, Hector. Terremoto de abril de 2014 en Chile. Vamos por buen camino. Lecciones aprendidas. Disaster Recovery Institute. 2014

[9] See for example Mella, Marcelo (2012). “Efectos sociales del terremoto en Chile y gestión política de la reconstrucción durante el gobierno de Sebastián Piñera (2010-2011).” Universidad de Santiago de Chile, and Ramirez and Sandoval (2012). “Tsunami paso a paso: los escandalosos errorores y omisiones del SHOA y la ONEMI.” Available in http://ciperchile.cl/2012/01/18/tsunami-paso-a-paso-los-escandalosos-errores-y-omisiones-del-shoa-y-la-onemi/.

[10] Opazo Santis, Hector. Terremoto de abril de 2014 en Chile. Vamos por buen camino. Lecciones aprendidas. Disaster Recovery Institute. 2014

[11] Medina, María Belén (2014). “El manejo de la Presidenta Bachelet: las diferencias entre el 27/F y el terremoto y tsunami del norte.” La Tercera.

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