Two Years After 8.8 Earthquake in Chile: Lessons from a Disaster

02/27/2012 03:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2012

Windows crushing. Buildings collapsing, cars dancing in the streets. Everything shaking, and then, the horrible noise of disaster.

That night, 27 February 2010, at 3: 34 am, the earth moved so intensely that no Chilean could remain in bed: it was one of the worst earthquakes of the world. Even in a country used to earth movements and constant trembling, this was the most destructive since 1985.

While in the cities people tried to call relatives, escape or listen to news, another tragedy was taking place: lethal tsunamis in the Chilean coast. These 16 waves from 5 to 30 meters -the first at 3 49 in the morning- caused panic and death in coastal villages, but nobody knew this at that moment.

It was an unending night: 525 people died, 25 are still missing, and 500 thousand people lost their homes. Even though earthquakes in Haiti or Japan may have had much more damage, Chilean earthquake of 2010 left a lot of lessons, but in my opinion, especially two.

Chile is looked at as an example in our region, a small serious country, in the last steps to achieve development. That's true, but it is also true that we were not really prepared for this kind of tragedy.

The investigation of fiscal Solange Huerta has found enormous negligence in the procedure of the public agencies in charge of these situations, particularly Shoa (belonging to the Chilean Navy) and Onemi (National Office of emergencies, from government), and has accused nine authorities, that will be formalized by justice next may.

The first one didn't give the tsunami alarm that the PTWC center in Hawaii sent them at 3:48 am; only one minute after the earthquake happened. That would have saved so many lives of people that didn't know that a tsunami was coming and so remained home or at the village.

Then, the authorities called of the alarm, and other Chileans went back to their homes, finding death and destruction.
In Juan Fernandez Island, for example, citizens realized they the sea level was higher, but as the Navy said that there was no threat, they didn't escape.

They died.

In other villages of Chile the same thing happened.

The country not only lost communications, electricity and water, also the rule of law in certain places where some people began to steal supermarkets and stores. First as a result of fear of shortage of food, but then they stole TV, bicycles, refrigerators...

So, for some days, our civilized country looked like an underdeveloped one. It's not that a European country or the US would have done everything better (we still remember the Katrina images), but it was shocking to see how institutions created for this kind of emergency didn't have the expertise, the knowledge, the abilities and the resources to handle this. The image of Hillary Clinton arriving to Santiago airport and giving former President Bachelet a set of satellite phones spoke for itself! At that moment we realized, with disappointment, that we were not close enough to be a first world country.

Second lesson was the extraordinary solidarity between Chilean people. In the last years there is concern about rising individualism in our society. After twenty years of democracy, the community spirit of the eighties, during Pinochet dictatorship, has faded. As in every other modern city of the world, people care mostly about their own issues: family, work, leisure, and soccer... of course. But after the tragedy, as damages and death began to get noticed, big waves of help began in our country. NGO Un techo para Chile raised millions of Chilean pesos in a big Telethon to build -with the hands of college students - thousand of emergency homes for people left without shelter, and another NGO, Desafio Levantemos Chile, was created to rebuild only in days the schools in the most devastated cities. Those are only two examples. Chileans from different backgrounds and ideas gave their time, energy and money to help others suffering.

Latin Americans have this in their hearts; it's in fact an extension of the strong idea of family in our culture. But as we begin to reach developing world standards, these values weakened. But that essential spirit was alive those days, and part of it remained until now. So there is bad and good news after the earthquake that moved our world: we were not that developed, but we were closer to each other than we thought.

The Chilean road to development should include and pursue both values: the ability to achieve goals, and get things done, and also to build a society of people connected with each other, with a sense of community and of common purpose.