Looting after Chile quake

March 1, 2010 12:00 am

, CONCEPCION, Mar 1 – Desperate survivors of Chile\’s earthquake defied army threats and looted stores on Monday as rescuers using sniffer dogs toiled through the night to locate those buried under the rubble.

Around 160 people were detained by military patrols for breaking the night-time curfew in and around the southern city of Concepcion where troops had earlier fired tear-gas to stop looters pillaging goods.

As President Michelle Bachelet said she expected the death toll of 708 to rise, the full scale of the devastation wrought by Saturday\’s 8.8-magnitude quake was emerging from seaside towns and villages engulfed by giant waves.

State television reported that more than 300 bodies had been found in the swamped fishing village of Constitucion alone, leaving survivors to stare in disbelief at the seaweed clinging to what was left of their livelihoods.

The mayor of Concepcion pleaded urgently for help as rescuers with heat detectors and sniffer dogs hunted for dozens of people believed to be trapped in a 15-storey apartment block toppled on its side by the quake.

The plaintive cry of "Is anyone there?" echoed throughout the night around the building. Eight bodies were pulled from the rubble on Sunday but rescuers are still hopeful of finding survivors.

The army was also called in to help the overwhelmed police force deal with looters, some of whom dragged shopping trolleys full of provisions while others made off with plasma TVs and electrical appliances.

"I would advise criminals not to mess with the armed forces. Our response will be severe, but within the context of the law," Guillermo Ramirez, military commander of the central Maule region, warned the looters.
As they struggled to keep order, the troops fired tear-gas and water cannon on residents, driven to desperation by a lack of water and electricity.

"It\’s for my children. It\’s the only way to give them something to eat," cried one man as he tore at the metal shutters of a supermarket.

As dawn broke, others could be seen making off with large sacks of flour on their backs from an industrial zone.

"This is not stealing. It\’s to make bread to survive," said one man in his 40s as he drove off with a sacked precariously balanced on his motorbike.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera said the situation in Concepcion was dangerous.

"When we have a catastrophe of this magnitude, when there is no electricity and no water, the population … starts losing the sense of public order."

The streets largely emptied as the curfew came into force but some residents spent the night around bonfires in front of their damaged houses for fear of going inside in the face of possible new aftershocks.

Bachelet, due to hand over power to Pinera on March 11, said the air force was to begin flying in food and aid to badly hit areas, some of which were largely cut off by the quake.

Japan said it would give up to three million dollars in assistance and send a medical team to Chile. China said it would donate one million dollars.

The government admitted it had erred by failing to warn Chileans about the tsunami risk following Saturday\’s 8.8-magnitude quake.

Official data from US experts at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre put the biggest tsunami wave at 2.6 meters. The wave came without warning for many, its huge volumes of water sweeping helpless people out to sea and reducing all but the strongest structures in its path into useless flotsam and jetsam.

"It covered everything," Carlos Palma, a resident of the town of Penco, told AFP as he scoured the coast in search of his belongings.

"It swept away houses, restaurants and a mechanic\’s shop."

Some two million Chileans, an eighth of the entire population, are estimated to have been affected by what was the seventh most powerful quake on record.

The impact sliced main highways with massive fissures and bridges and overpasses lay in crumpled heaps and at twisted angles.

The impact was also felt in the capital with only two international flights able to land at Santiago airport on Sunday after heavy damage to its terminal.

Unlike Haiti, struck by a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12 which killed 217,000 people, Chile is one of Latin America\’s wealthiest countries.

But the total value of economic damage is still likely to range between $15 billion and $30 billion, the US risk modelling firm EQECAT predicted.

Experts said the quake, which struck off the coast and caused tsunami alerts in 53 Pacific-rim countries, was caused by the subduction of the Nazca plate beneath the South American plate.


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