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Chile Reels from Quake Aftershocks as Troops Crack Down on Looting

March 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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More than 700 people are dead after one of the most powerful earthquakes in more than a century hit Chile on Saturday. Since then, troops and police have cracked down on curfew violations in an effort to stop violence and looting. Gwen Ifill speaks with GlobalPost's Pascale Bonnefoy in Santiago for more.
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GWEN IFILL: Rescuers discovered signs of life in the wreckage of a 15-story building Monday, as the world offered aid to victims of a disaster that has left more than 700 confirmed dead, a toll likely to rise.

Dozens of aftershocks rattled Chile for a third day, following Saturday’s massive quake. And the scope of the catastrophe became more clear: two million people homeless or displaced, half-a-million homes damaged or destroyed. Major routes remained impassible, twisted and snapped by the force of the 8.8-magnitude quake.

The stricken nation sought international assistance to deal with what Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called an emergency without parallel. Pledges immediately began pouring in.

While traveling in Uruguay on a long-planned South American tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. stands ready to work in solidarity with the Chilean leaders. She stopped in Santiago tomorrow.

Today, the U.S. ambassador there, Paul Simons, said locating around 18,000 Americans now in Chile was a high priority. Simons briefed reporters in Washington by videoconference.

PAUL SIMONS, U.S. ambassador to Chile: We have reached out. We have a lot of American citizens here in Chile. A number of them are tourists. Some are student groups. And we have reached out. We have had meetings with them at the hotels.

We have reached out to the universities. One of the goals of our team that’s going down to Concepcion is to meet with the students at the University of Concepcion, and to see how they are doing and what — how they would — how would — they would like to move forward.

GWEN IFILL: On the ground, the Chilean military prepared a staging ground for supplies.

CHILEAN SOLDIER (through translator): This place, which we just took control of, will be the place where all food aid will be gathered.

GWEN IFILL: In Santiago, some older structures collapsed. Walls around this doorway came down. But the airport reopened today, and the subway was running again, partially. Power was restored in parts of the city.

To the south, nearer the epicenter of the quake, rescuers drilled through concrete in the devastated city of Concepcion, struggling to reach those still trapped in apartment buildings.

MAN (through translator): We have so far 48 people missing, 63 survivors, and eight dead. That’s the number up to today.

GWEN IFILL: Two hundred people lived in Concepcion, just over 300 miles south of the capital. It is Chile’s second largest city. Coastal towns were all but obliterated, first by the earthquake, then by tsunami waves.

WOMAN (through translator): It was horrible. We lost everything, the cars, our car, our son’s car, the house, everything.

GWEN IFILL: Whole houses were lifted by the waves and carried inland. Others reduced to sticks, where they stood. Many survivors in the hardest-hit areas struggled to find food and clean water.

To combat a sense of looting and violence, police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds and ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew. This morning, a mob of desperate people emptied this store, throwing bunches of toilet paper to people waiting below. That scene was repeated across the country.

MAN (through translator): I need food. I can’t be eating bread. This is what is going to help me. Each person thinks what they think, and we have to do what we have to do.

GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, homeowners in some neighborhoods erected barricades to keep the looters out.

WOMAN (through translator): They told to us do whatever necessary, that, if we needed to be armed in the street, that’s fine. We were told to try to avoid confrontation, but that, if it is necessary, we must do anything to defend our houses.

GWEN IFILL: Dozens were arrested overnight.

Fearing additional aftershocks, thousands chose to sleep outside for a second night, dragging their possessions, waiting for news.

WOMAN (through translator): It’s safer to be outside than inside, because a house can collapse at any time.

GWEN IFILL: Many hospitals were damaged in the quake. Doctors and nurses set up makeshift wards in hallways of undamaged buildings. Makeshift clinics were set up outside. Video shot during the quake itself showed lights inside this pizzeria flickering and ceiling tiles falling to the ground, as customers scrambled.

President Bachelet leaves office in just over a week. Her successor, Sebastian Pinera, also addressed the nation.

SEBASTIAN PINERA, Chilean president-elect (through translator): As we analyze and investigate, we find far more damage than estimated. This is why we are working on our reconstruction plan with a concept of raising Chile. It will have several phases, but, of course, we will take on board this new responsibility which nature and adversity has put on our shoulders.

GWEN IFILL: The strongest earthquake on record hit the same area 50 years ago. More than 1,600 people died.

For the latest on the ground in Chile, I spoke early this evening with Pascale Bonnefoy of the international Web site GlobalPost. She is in Santiago.

Pascale, welcome. I see you standing on a busy street there in Santiago. Give us a sense of what it’s like in the nation’s capital tonight.

PASCALE BONNEFOY, GlobalPost: Well, the capital is pretty calm. You see it’s busy because it’s rush hour and also because, since the church behind me was partially destroyed, its bell was destroyed, there’s a lot of detours here.

There’s been occasional looting in Santiago. A police force is guarding some supermarket and shops. There’s already police officers in front of some shops, people still sleeping on the streets outdoors, for fear of their apartment buildings collapsing or their houses going down.

But, in general, it’s pretty calm in Santiago. The transportation has been restored, the metro as well. The — the real chaos is further south from the capital.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what I want to — that’s what I want to talk to you about. We have heard of 700-plus casualties, most of them to the south.

What do we know about what’s happening in Concepcion and along the coast, south of the capital?

PASCALE BONNEFOY: OK.

The official total now is 723 dead and 19 disappeared, but, basically, because they haven’t — the rest of the disappeared haven’t been reported. It is — it’s going to be about several hundred more, it seems, because the coastal towns and cities were completely wiped out. The small ones were wiped out by tidal waves right after the earthquake.

A lot of people didn’t make it up the hill, especially people who weren’t from the region, because this was the last summer vacation weekend, and a lot of people came from other places. People living in the south and on the coast know that, if there is an earthquake or a tremor, they immediately go up the hills.

But tourists don’t know that. And there wasn’t much time between the earthquake and the tidal waves. And, at the same time, the navy immediately said there was no risk of — of tidal wave — of tsunamis. So, that was a mistake they are now just recognizing and acknowledging.

But what’s happening in Concepcion and most cities in the south, in both regions, is severe looting and vandalism. At first, it was looting out of need for food, because there is some food shortages. But now it’s gotten out of hand.

There’s hordes of people attacking, not only supermarkets and pharmacies, but also just department stores, breaking into people’s homes, into abandoned apartment buildings, setting them on fire. This afternoon, they set on fire a supermarket and a retail store.

And 7,000 troops, military troops, are set to go to the — both regions as of today.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

PASCALE BONNEFOY: They are gradually traveling. Between today and tomorrow, there’s going to be about 7,000.

GWEN IFILL: Have we seen signs of international aid yet?

PASCALE BONNEFOY: Argentina just sent generators, some field tent hospitals, and water purifiers, and some doctors as well. That’s the most recent concrete aid we have seen.

GWEN IFILL: And, Pascale, this must have been something to live through. Where were you when the earthquake struck?

PASCALE BONNEFOY: I was at home in a two-story house, sleeping. And when the house started shaking and then rocking, I didn’t even make it downstairs. We just kind of held on to the walls and door frames and lived it out on the second floor.

Everything was rocking. The house was going from one side to another. And things were crashing down. It was very violent, very violent, very noisy. We didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if I was going end up in the first floor, if the house was going to crash down.

It was extremely terrifying, but, luckily, we were fine. The house was actually fine, in spite of the things that — that were broken.

GWEN IFILL: There are so many questions.

PASCALE BONNEFOY: But we are still without electricity three days into the quake.

GWEN IFILL: Really?

You know, there are so many questions about many newer buildings which didn’t survive or were destabilized in the quake. Have there been questions raised about construction standards leading up to this?

PASCALE BONNEFOY: It’s going to be a big issue, actually, because the old — for example, my house was built in the 1960s. The whole neighborhood was. It withstood the quake very well.

But new buildings that were opened as recently as October last year or a year ago have been evacuated. Some of the ground floors were sinking. Some were near collapse. And there are a lot of angry new owners of these apartments, not homes, but apartments.

And what’s been happening is that, over the past couple of decades, or — there’s been a lot more — regulations have been more lax. Municipalities or essential government no longer regulate if these construction codes are really being abided by.

Now, it’s in the hands of architects and these companies themselves. So, there is a lot — and there is a lot of — there’s a big construction boom all over the place. So, it seems that they are not really complying with — with the strict standards that we have always had in this country, which is a country used to many, many earthquakes.

So, it’s going to be a big issue. There’s already talk about taking some firms to court, investigating them. But, of course, that’s going to be after the — the immediate crisis subsides.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, a lot of cleanup first.

Pascale Bonnefoy of GlobalPost in Santiago, thank you so much for joining us.

PASCALE BONNEFOY: OK.