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Chile’s President Calls for Calm After Quake as Military Mobilizes

March 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Michelle Bachelet appealed to citizens of her country to remain calm, as the relief effort continues along Chile's coast after Saturday's massive earthquake. Margaret Warner reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: an update on the disaster in Chile, the rescue and relief efforts.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: On day five, after the earthquake that rocked her nation, the president of Chile appealed for calm today. In a nationally televised speech, Michelle Bachelet assured Chileans that there are no shortages of essential supplies.

MICHELLE BACHELET, Chilean president (through translator): There is enough food. However, people in the places where stores are closed must have patience and keep calm. We are going to send goods. Stores and banks will reopen. We will soon be back to a relatively normal situation.

MARGARET WARNER: With just over a week left in office, Bachelet also rejected criticism that her government’s response to the catastrophe has been halting.

The president stood her ground in an interview with a Chilean radio station. “Everyone claims to be a general after the war,” she said. Then added: “No one failed to fulfill their responsibilities. There were things that could have been done differently. There are things that must be changed, but now is not the time to assign blame. Now is the time to make sure we help those in crisis.”

Mike Warren of the Associated Press says he has heard widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s response. He spoke to us from Concepcion.

MIKE WARREN, The Associated Press: The state of emergency — they call it actually a state of catastrophe — was not declared by Bachelet until Sunday evening. That was a full 36 hours or so after the earthquake struck.

And what that did is, it put responsibility for the relief and recovery effort squarely in the hands of the military. It also gave the military powers to operate in the streets doing police work with orders to shot to kill if necessary.

That’s a draconian state of emergency. And, apparently, there was some reluctance to impose it. But people are now very happy that it’s here and that it’s in place. And the military, off the record, they tell me — military officials say that, because of that delay until Sunday evening, it did slow them down in initially rolling their equipment.

Now that equipment is coming in waves, in huge Hercules airplanes, helicopters, trucks, tanks, troop carriers. And we have got thousands of soldiers on the streets. They’re here now, but people are saying, finally here. And there’s a very palpable sense that the government screwed this up, and they should have rolled everything earlier.

MARGARET WARNER: To enforce the president’s call for order, Chile’s army was out in force on the streets of Concepcion.

Last night, 12,000 troops put the ravaged city in virtual lockdown, largely ending a wave of looting that followed Saturday’s quake.

Mike Warren says the troops today have let some semblance of normality emerge.

MIKE WARREN: With the end of the curfew at noon today, people poured onto the streets. Traffic clogged the streets. And people were buying newspapers and chewing gum and calling cards at the few local stores that were open.

Power still remains out for most of the area, water and food in short supply. The situation remains grim, especially in the places that were hardest-hit by the disaster and the tsunami, where houses were just completely — entire towns were pretty much wiped out.

MARGARET WARNER: The president warned today she expects the death toll in Chile to rise well beyond the current total of some 800. And, if the damage along the Pacific coast is any indication, the numbers will rise.

This is Pelluhue, north of Concepcion. It was flattened by the quake and following tsunami.

Marta Manzanilla described what happened.

MARTA MANZANILLA, Chilean (through translator): A wave caught me here at home. And I ran with my 10-year-old granddaughter. And, with the water up to my neck, I made it three or four houses down through the backyard, lifting my granddaughter.

MARGARET WARNER: The search for survivors and the missing also continued throughout the quake zone. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said they’re trying to locate the many Americans in Concepcion.

PAUL WATZLAVICK, U.S. embassy, Santiago, Chile: There’s somewhere between 700 and 1,200 Americans in the area. We have actually brought a team of consular officers down here, and we have begun to identify our wardens and reach out through them to try to determine where Americans may be in the area. We will be operating out of Concepcion for the next several days, if not weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, military-led assistance has begun to arrive here and throughout central Chile. Theirs is a multifaceted mission.

LT. JUAN CARLOS HITE, Chilean army (through translator): Our main purpose here is to help people look for bodies, looking through the rubble, and help people with sanitary issues and medical help.

MARGARET WARNER: With roads badly damaged, Chilean army helicopters ferried supplies into hard-hit locales, like Dichato, near the epicenter.

SOLDIER (through translator): We have four helicopters working with the security measures that go with it to make this process safer and faster. Let’s hope we can please everybody, but it is unlikely that we will be able to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: In Talca, inland from the ravaged coast, firemen did structural assessments of buildings, hoping to avoid further casualties from the aftershocks that continue to rock the country.

RODRIGO SEPULVEDA, firefighter (through translator): We are marking the walls and evaluating the structures of the houses and stores, so people won’t face any more risks with the aftershocks that are taking place. And they are strong aftershocks. They are not light at all. So, we are evaluating the structures and indicating it on the walls.

MARGARET WARNER: Indeed, another strong series of aftershocks sent Chileans and their rescuers alike running this afternoon. But there were no immediate reports of injuries.