“We Need Food. We Need Diapers”

March 6, 2010

The shoreline in Constitucion after Chile's Feb. 27 earthquake and tsunami

The damaged highway connecting Santiago to the south-central regions hardest hit by Saturday’s monster 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile is now open, but help is slow to arrive for the disaster zone’s desperate survivors.

Makeshift signs posted along the road to Constitucion, one of dozens of coastal towns socked first by the quake and then, soon after, by a deadly tsunami, offer a sad synopsis of the recovery effort to date. “We need food. We need diapers.”

In Constitucion itself the devastation is overwhelming. Along the shore a long row of seaside restaurants and shops were literally wiped off the map, dashed by the raging sea against the cliffs behind. There are just tangled pieces left. Police and teenage soldiers patrol the debris-covered streets in the town center, where almost every single building suffered major damage. As night approaches, M-16 wielding troops remind passersby of the pending curfew. Already people are lighting campfires to cook and stay warm.

“Here the sea just lashed its anger out at everything,” said Daniel Aredano, a 63-year-old man from northern Chile who had been vacationing in the area at the time of the quake. “Nothing was left standing. Everything is destroyed. I saw the film ‘Tornado’ and this is the same thing.”

Farther inland, in the city of Curico, residents are still trying to clear the streets and rescue belongings from badly damaged homes and shops. Just across from the main plaza, the building that for 111 years housed La Prensa de Curico, the local newspaper, has spilled its guts out into the street. A small van – loaded and ready to deliver the Feb. 27 edition, is sandwiched under heaps of brick and concrete. The driver barely avoided a similar fate, leaping to safety just in time, explained Raul Paredes, La Prensa’s maintenance chief. Two other late night workers were caught inside the collapsed building but, once the dust settled, were able to crawl out to safety.

“It was just a complete earthquake. A complete disaster. I’d say 60 percent of the homes here are damaged,” said Paredes.

The staff has since relocated and returned to work. On Thursday, Paredes explained, the paper – paralyzed for the first time in a century – will finally run a new edition. “Tomorrow we’ll be back in kiosks,” he said. “The Prensa never dies. Plus we’ve got families at home. We need to feed them.”

In Santiago groups like the University of Chile’s Student Federation, the FECH, say help is on the way. On Tuesday some 500 student volunteers spent the day preparing boxes of foodstuffs, loading trucks and organizing transportation south. According to FECH coordinator Suzanna Zuñiga, however, the group’s still not ready to send volunteers en masse. “We still need a good diagnosis of what they need,” she said.

The desperate people of Constitucion and other communities in Chile’s Maule and Bio Bio Regions – the areas closest to the epicenter – say they’ve already waiting long enough.

“Really what people need is water, non-perishable food, warm clothes and medicine,” said Aredano. “Help is arriving, but only a bit at a time. It should have come more quickly. That’s why people got so desperate and started looting supermarkets.”

(A version of this article originally appeared on March 4 in
the Christian Science Monitor)


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