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Chile quake: Looting and hoarding on the streets

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Chile quake: Looting and hoarding on the streets

Near Concepcion, many continue living outside as soldiers try to keep order amid food & gas shortages

  • Chilean troops patrol Concepcion, March 1.
    Juan Eduardo Donoso/flickrChilean troops patrol Concepcion, March 1.
  • A looted store in Concepcion, March 1.
    Juan Eduardo Donoso/flickrA looted store in Concepcion, March 1.
  • The earthquake's aftermath.
    James Guppy/flickrThe earthquake's aftermath.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Three days after the quake, there's looting and hoarding on Chile's streets as residents wait for basic necessities to be restored.

The government decreed a state of catastrophe for the Maule and Bio Bio regions — the areas most devasted by Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake and where most of the 708 confirmed deaths took place. The decree means 10,000 soldiers will be out on the streets to restore order as well as help deliver assistance and contribute to rescue efforts.

President Michelle Bachelet said an estimated 2 million people have been displaced, 1.5 million homes were damaged — at least half a million of them uninhabitable — and that the death toll would probably rise in the next few days. She said Chile "is facing a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude that will require giant efforts."

The government will accept international aid in terms of field hospitals, rescue workers, water purifiers and damage assessment experts.

Bachelet also announced that the government struck an agreement with the major supermarket chains to provide basic foodstuff to residents in the most devastated areas in an attempt to prevent the major looting that has been escalating in the south since Saturday night.

There is now relative calm in the capital Santiago where structural damage was limited. But 10 percent of the city's population is still without electricity, some areas lack water, telecommunication services are poor and many people continue to sleep on the streets near their damaged homes. People have been lining up for blocks at gas stations to fill their tanks. Fearing shortages, they have rushed to supermarkets to buy all they can.

Local vendors are selling essential goods, including mineral water, diapers and bread, at prices several times higher than normal, prompting angry residents to loot stores and supermarkets. The looting in the capital, however, is only occasional.

But in Concepcion, about 500 miles south of the capital and 56 miles south of the epicenter, and other surrounding coastal towns and cities, thousands of desperate residents have been massively looting supermarkets, shops and pharmacies. No major supermarket has escaped. One in Concepcion was even set on fire when there was nothing left to steal.

In some places, the police has opted to stand by and allow people to take foodstuffs, but not steal other non-essential goods.

As in Santiago, cars are lining up at gas stations, but in some places, drivers have been taking the gas themselves from stations that were left unattended.

On Sunday morning, the mayor of Concepcion called on the government to send military troops to restore order in the city, which, she said, was out of control. Hours later, the government announced a curfew in the Maule and Bio Bio regions starting Sunday night. No one will be allowed to wander the streets from 9 p.m to 6 a.m.

Hundreds of people lost everything in the quake or tsunamis and are now living and sleeping outdoors, near their homes to protect their goods and property, or up hills where they had fled with whatever they could grab as they escaped the tidal waves that came shortly after the earthquake.

Waves several meters high smashed into small fishing towns, city ports and tourist coastal centers, engulfing everything in sight. In Talcahuano, an industrial port next to Concepcion, a ship and containers from the port were washed into the city's main plaza. In nearby towns, fishing boats could be seen next to cars. 

The archipelago of Juan Fernandez, more than 930 miles from the coast in the Pacific Ocean, was hit by a 15-meter tidal wave an hour after the earthquake, which its residents had barely felt. The tsunami there flooded several miles of Robinson Crusoe island, the only populated island, with 840 inhabitants. More than a dozen people died and more remain missing.

Entire towns along the coast have disappeared. Ruben Diaz, a forest technician from Concepcion who had arrived in Santiago the night before the earthquake, said that small fishing hamlets like Caleta Tumbes, in Talcahuano Bay, were completely obliterated.

"It has about 500 inhabitants, and most everyone was able to escape the waves by fleeing to the hillside. But they remain there — they have nowhere to go. Their town completely disappeared," he said.

Diaz has had sporadic telephone communication with his wife, who remained in the large worker district in Concepcion where they live with their children. She said their neighborhood lacks water and electricity and the local supermarket was completely cleaned out of food on Saturday evening. Whatever was left was looted on Sunday morning.

With communications scarce and poor, people are flocking to bus terminals in Santiago to try to travel south to check on their relatives. However, no buses have been able to leave yet. The highways and bridges are damaged and there are numerous detours.

Monserrat Capdevila, a translator in Santiago, has barely received any news of her uncle, aunt and their three teenage children who live in a district on the outskirts of Concepcion, right past the bridge that connects that city to Talcahuano. One of the walls of their home crashed down during the earthquake and since then, the family has been living out of its car.

Their house is not only uninhabitable, it also lacks gas for cooking and heating, water and electricity. Communication with their relatives in Santiago has been sporadic and poor, and Capdevila worries about how they are getting by.

"There is only one supermarket near them and it was closed after the quake. Then it was completely looted so there is nothing there anymore. I don't know what or how they are eating, and my uncle is a diabetic," she said.

Her uncle was hospitalized Friday night in Concepcion and spent the earthquake alone in the hospital. One of his sons went to get him the following morning and found his father standing in the hallway connected to a bag of serum. There were no beds or stretchers available.

"We don't know how they will live. Going to Concepcion or Talcahuano is useless, because there is nothing there anymore," said Capdevila.

Meanwhile, an expert rescue force that recently assisted in efforts in Haiti flew to Concepcion on Sunday to try to rescue some 50 people still trapped in a 15-story building that crumbled to the ground. The building — which opened just last year— collapsed to three floors.

In Santiago, a number of new apartment buildings in the Maipu district are in danger of falling down or have been rendered too dangerous to inhabit. The apartments were brand new, and only half of them had been sold. Their owners are outraged and since Saturday have been sleeping on the street, waiting for some explanation from the construction firm.

On Sunday evening, a newly constructed building in the Nunoa district was evacuated for fear it would collapse. In other areas of Santiago similar situations are taking place, suggesting building contractors have been lax about regulations. Theere are strict construction codes in place to make all installations resistant to tremors.

There is already talk of taking these firms to court once the emergency is over.

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