ANGOL, Chile — Chile’s government, after initially waving off outside aid, changed course Monday as the devastation from the powerful earthquake sunk in and the nation’s pressing needs became clear.
With the desperation of many Chileans mounting, the United Nations said that the government had asked for generators, water filtration equipment and field hospitals, as well as experts to assess just how much damage was caused by Saturday’s earthquake.
Chile has always been considered Latin America’s most earthquake-ready country. Its children learn to run for cover during quake drills before learning to read. Its building codes are robust. Its disaster manual is thick, laying out all the scenarios for the temblors that are a regular part of life.
But despite all that, the powerful quake that jolted Chileans awake has left the country reeling. Collapsed bridges and damaged roadways have made it difficult to even get to some areas. Downed phone lines and cellular towers have made it impossible to communicate. And many residents in the most damaged areas have not only taken food from supermarkets, but also robbed banks, set fires and engaged in other forms of lawlessness.
The quake has also exposed the fact, experts say, that although Chile is one of the most developed countries in the region, it is also one of the most unequal, with huge pockets of urban and rural poor, who suffered most in the quake.
It was not just the violent shaking that tore apart Chile, but also the surge of waves that swept in along the coast, washing away homes.
A perception has begun to set in among many residents that the country was not as well-prepared as it had thought. In Santiago, those left homeless after their brand-new and supposedly earthquake-resistant apartments suffered severe structural damage are furious. Chileans are wondering aloud why food is not getting to the hungry faster and why the politicians and soldiers seem unresponsive.
As each day passes, it becomes clearer in Chile that those needs are huge. The numbers of damaged buildings is increasing, not just from aftershocks but from troublemakers who have set fire to businesses in the damage zone.
President Michelle Bachelet has just 10 days left in office, leaving her successor, Sebastian Pinera, little time to get up to speed on governing. One official in the current administraton, who did not have authorization to speak on the record, suggested that the looming transition was already complicating the government response.