IQUIQUE, Chile — Hard-won expertise and a big dose of luck helped Chile escape its latest magnitude-8.2 earthquake with surprisingly little damage and death.
The country that suffers some of the world’s most powerful quakes has strict building codes, mandatory evacuations and emergency preparedness that sets a global example. But Chileans weren’t satisfied Wednesday, finding much room for improvement. And experts warn that a “seismic gap” has left northern Chile overdue for a far bigger quake.
Authorities on Wednesday reported just six deaths from the quake. It’s possible that others were killed in remote communities that weren’t immediately accessible, but it’s still a low toll for such a powerful shift in the undersea fault that runs along the length of South America’s Pacific coast.
“How much is it luck? ... How much is it preparedness? It is a combination of all of the above,” said Costas Synolakis, an engineer who directs the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California.
About 2,500 homes were damaged in Alto Hospicio, a poor neighborhood in the hills above Iquique, a city of nearly 200,000 people whose coastal residents joined a mandatory evacuation ahead of a tsunami that rose to only 8 feet.
As President Michelle Bachelet deployed hundreds of anti-riot police and soldiers to prevent looting and round up escaped prisoners, it was clear that the loss of life and property could have been much worse.
The shaking that began at 8:46 p.m. Tuesday also touched off landslides that blocked roads, knocked out power for thousands, briefly closed regional airports and started fires that destroyed several businesses.
The mandatory evacuation lasted for 10 hours in Iquique and Arica, the cities closest to the epicenter, and kept 900,000 people out of their homes along Chile’s 2,500-mile coastline. The order to leave was spread through cellphone text messages and Twitter, and reinforced by blaring sirens in neighborhoods that regularly practice earthquake drills.
But the system has its shortcomings: The government has yet to install tsunami warning sirens in parts of Arica, leaving authorities to shout orders by megaphone. And fewer than 15 percent of Chileans have downloaded the smartphone application that can alert them to evacuation orders.
Alberto Maturana, the former director of Chile’s Emergency Office, said Chileans were lucky the quake hadn’t caught them in the middle of the day when parents and children are separated, or in the middle of the night.
Bachelet, who just returned to the presidency three weeks ago, had no margin for error. The last time she presided over a major quake, days before the end of her 2006-10 term, her emergency preparedness office prematurely waved off a tsunami danger. Most of the 500 dead from that magnitude-8.8 tremor were caught in killer waves.
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