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Lessons from 2010 Chile earthquake saved lives this week, say experts

September 18, 2015

SANTIAGO, Chile – Lessons learned from a devastating earthquake five years ago when authorities were accused of failing the population helped limit the toll from this week’s powerful Chile earthquake, experts say.

Twelve people were killed in the magnitude-8.3 quake and subsequent tsunami that ravaged a stretch of Chile’s northern coast on the night of Tuesday and into Wednesday.

The shoreline in Coquimbo, the worst-hit coastal city, was a jumble of fishing boats, destroyed homes, trucks, vendors’ stands and cars washed up by the tsunami waves.

But the human toll was thankfully far lower than in February 2010, when a magnitude-8.8 quake and tsunami left 500 people dead.

“Chile’s investment in resilient infrastructure, early warning systems and urban planning have ensured that casualties have been low on this occasion, despite the intensity of the earthquake,” Margareta Wahlstroem, head of the U.N. disaster reduction agency UNISDR, said in a statement on the Chile earthquake response.

Mixed messages

Five years ago, authorities sent out a series of mixed messages in the quake aftermath. People returned to their homes on the coast after a tsunami alert was lifted — only for a killer wave to strike in the following hours, claiming more than 100 lives.

Chilean courts are still trying to determine responsibility for the fiasco.

“The 2010 quake, which directly affected 70 percent of the population, triggered an awareness that would not otherwise have come about,” said Sergio Barrientos of the Chilean national seismology center.

This week’s quake was the most powerful recorded anywhere in the world this year, and the sixth strongest in the history of geologically volatile Chile.

But this time, within minutes of the quake, the navy launched a tsunami alert covering the entire country, triggering the evacuation of a million people, who have since gradually been returning home.

“The evacuation of one million people ensured that there was no repetition of the loss of life which happened five years ago,” Wahlstroem said.

Seismic isolation

Chile lies on what is known as the “Ring of Fire” — an arc of fault lines that circles the Pacific Basin and is prone to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The country has long put in place antiseismic engineering systems, applying a technique known as seismic isolation, or base isolation to protect buildings from the earth’s judders.

“Strong quakes are so frequent in Chile that our engineers have designed infrastructure and buildings able to withstand them,” said Barrientos.

Back in 2010, those norms already limited damage to 0.3 percent of buildings in Santiago.

This week’s quake occurred 228 kilometers (about 140 miles) north of the capital, where it set buildings swaying but caused no major damage. Across the country, material damage has largely been limited to lightweight structures of wood or packed earth.

Authorities have yet to put a financial figure on the damage of this week’s Chile earthquake, but it is not expected to come anywhere near the $30 billion — 18 percent of Chile’s GDP — suffered five years ago.

The national emergency service ONEMI has also been leading a big push to educate the population, organizing frequent drills and visiting schools to simulate earthquake situations.

“We have learned to live with these phenomena,” said Barrientos. “It’s part of our daily lives to deal with the possible consequences of earthquakes.”

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