Aftershocks Hit Chile, as Rescue Efforts Continue and Death Toll Rises

BY Jason M. Breslow  March 1, 2010 at 9:04 AM EDT


–Men sit in a street devastated by the tsunami in Talcahuano, Chile. Photo Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images.

Three more aftershocks jolted Chile early Monday, as the death toll from this weekend’s mammoth earthquake climbed to more than 700 and rescue workers searched for trapped survivors.

The first of three tremblers hit shortly after 3 a.m. local time and registered a magnitude of 4.8, according to the United States Geological Survey. Within 90 minutes, two more hit — the first at 4.9, while the second was registered at 5.3.

More than 2 million have been displaced by Saturday’s 8.8 quake, which President Michelle Bachelet called “an emergency unparalleled in the history of Chile.”

Officials are concentrating the rescue effort on the hardest-hit southern regions of Bio Bio and Maule, roughly 70 miles from the epicenter of the quake. In Concepcion, Chile’s second largest city, rescue workers battled through crumbled roads and building, trying to reach survivors in a collapsed 15-story apartment building.

“It’s very slow, dangerous work, because on top of it all, it’s still shaking there,” Victoria Viteri, a spokeswoman with the national emergency office in Santiago, told the New York Times.

Yet even after experiencing the fifth-most powerful quake in recorded history, officials in Chile have taken “pride in the comparatively low death toll, a result widely attributed to the country’s meticulous planning and preparation,” according to the Washington Post.

Nonetheless, Bachelet said Chile would begin to accept some of the aid offers that have poured in from around the world, including the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and China. What her government needs most, she said, are field hospitals, temporary bridges, water purification plants and rescue workers to relieve exhausted first responders, NPR reported.

Complicating the relief effort have been reports of limited looting. Bachelet has implemented a curfew in some areas, and sent soldiers into to help maintain order.

“It’s been more than 48 hours since the quake, and people are getting desperate — in many areas they still don’t have water, they still don’t have food, and they still don’t have electricity,” reports the BBC’s Gideon Long.

Back in Concepcion, police fired water cannons and tear gas to break up looters. The governor of the region, Jaime Toha, told the Associated Press that police arrested 55 people for violating the curfew. “But law enforcement authorities, heeding the cries of residents that they lacked food and water, eventually settled on a system that allowed staples to be taken but not televisions and other electronic goods,” according to the New York Times.

With Bachelet preparing to leave office on March 11, “the earthquake is even made more complicated because she is a lame duck,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet as the Journal notes, Bachelet “is a leader whose political fortunes have seemed to rise, paradoxically, just when the darkest crises struck Chile.”