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Chile’s Death Toll Along Coast Continues to Climb

March 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The death toll in coastal Chile rose to nearly 800 in the wake of Saturday's massive earthquake and aftershocks. Margaret Warner reports on relief efforts by countries in the region and beyond.

JIM LEHRER: But, first, an update on the earthquake in Chile, where the death toll rose to nearly 800 today.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: In the seaside town of Chalco this morning, a new aftershock gave a small hint of what Saturday’s huge quake looked like on land and sea.

The waters of the Pacific didn’t break the beaches today, but vast expanses of the Chilean coast lie in near-total ruin, hammered not only by the violent shaking, but by the massive tsunami waves that followed. Walls of water at least 18 feet high rolled 200 yards inland and inundated whole villages and small towns.

The surge tossed boats from the shore, washed away homes, and left untold numbers of dead. In Dichato, north of the epicenter, villagers today tried to salvage what they could. Many died along this devastated stretch of coastline, and many remain missing.

Victoria Hernandez is looking for her parents.

WOMAN (through translator): I found my mom’s shoes, and I want to give them back to her if I find her.

MARGARET WARNER: Associated Press reporter Mike Warren visited Dichato and told us today what he heard about what it was like when the waves swept in.

MIKE WARREN, The Associated Press: What happened was, the bay emptied of water. It’s a very large bay. And the water just went out to sea. And some young teenagers drinking on the beach were the first to see this and sound the warning. They ran through the town of Dichato, saying, you know, run out of your houses, go for higher ground. And some made it, but many didn’t.

And those houses, all the sea-level houses in this city of — in this town of Dichato are — are just destroyed, matchsticks, piles of rubble. There’s very little left of them.

MARGARET WARNER: In some villages, local fishermen and harbormasters told people to leave. They knew from experience what was coming.

But Chile’s defense minister has said the navy made an error by failing to warn people of a possible tsunami. In hard-hit Constitucion, people today were camping by the shore.

NORMA FLOR CAMPOS, Chilean (through translator): There are many elderly who are suffering, a lot of people. We are desperate for ourselves and for the whole village of Constitucion.

MARGARET WARNER: And that desperation will only increase as supplies dwindle.

MARCELO ENCINA, Chilean (through translator): We don’t have milk or nappies for the children. Water — what we need is water and also food. That’s what we need the most, food and water, because we are running out of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Elsewhere, Chilean military and police sought to tamp down the looting and violence, especially in Concepcion. Chile’s second-largest city was under curfew again last night.

Mike Warren of the AP, speaking from Concepcion, says some people there are not relying on authorities for security.

MIKE WARREN: You have got neighborhoods organizing themselves with whatever weapons they can have — they can find, from sticks, wires, poles, and they are standing vigil at the end of their blocks around fires at night. There aren’t enough soldiers to go around.

MARGARET WARNER: Rescue operations continued there, focused on collapsed apartment buildings. An official said some of the missing have been found.

OFFICIAL (through translator): We were expecting another 30 or 40 people missing, and thanks to the support and the help of the media, all those who lived in the building came here, checked in with the authorities and the firefighters. And so now we only have seven people missing.

MARGARET WARNER: For many survivors, the main task for now is simply getting through the day. Many are sleeping outdoors, whether newly homeless or just fearful of aftershocks. And many are in a daze.

MAN (through translator): I never thought that what we saw on the news in Haiti just a few weeks ago would happen to us here in Chile.

MARGARET WARNER: As in Haiti, getting aid to those in need is a priority, and made harder by the destruction of roads and bridges. There’s also been criticism that the government underestimated the damage at first, and hasn’t moved quickly enough.

MICHELLE BACHELET, Chilean president (through translator): Today, we must have all the emergency mechanisms in place, the field hospitals, the distribution of essential products, the distribution of food by our emergency agencies. We must receive new loads of food, water, blankets, clothes, and other things, and send them through an aerial shuttle service. And we will also send two frigates and a barge.

MARGARET WARNER: Some help is on the way. A short time later, Bachelet greeted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who brought satellite phones.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. secretary of state: I had 25 on my plane loaded on, and I’m going to give this one to you, Madam President.

MARGARET WARNER: Those phones are just a small part of what Clinton promised will be a significant U.S. commitment to Chile. Bachelet leaves office in 10 days. She will be succeeded by Sebastian Pinera.

MICHELLE BACHELET (through translator): One of the possibilities I discussed with secretary of state, and I will also discuss with president-elect Pinera, is to have loans or funds with good conditions for the reconstruction process.

MARGARET WARNER: The meetings were held in the capital, Santiago, which was spared the widespread destruction that hit other parts of Chile. Early estimates put the quake’s financial cost at $30 billion, the final human toll as yet unknown.