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Chile steps up aid to desperate quake victims

CONSTITUCION, Chile (Reuters) - Chile’s government used helicopters and boats to speed up the delivery of food to hungry survivors on Tuesday as the death toll rose to nearly 800 three days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Chileans desperate for food and water swarmed soldiers as an army helicopter touched down in the ruined coastal town of Constitucion, which was hit by three giant waves set off by Saturday’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

The government dispatched more troops to restore order in Concepcion, Chile’s second-largest city, which was placed under curfew for 18 hours a day after looters raided stores and burned a supermarket.

There were no reports of major outbreaks of looting on Tuesday and President Michelle Bachelet said order had been restored in the city, which bore the brunt of the quake along with coastal towns that were also devastated by tsunamis.

Constitucion, with a population of nearly 40,000, accounts for nearly half of the official death toll, which Bachelet said had risen to 795. Surrounded by three hills, the city was turned into a ruin of flattened homes and toppled buildings. Wooden homes perched atop the hillsides were among the only buildings left standing.

Dozens of bodies were lined up on the floor of a makeshift morgue in a high school gymnasium, where people cringed at the pungent smell of death as they scoured a list of victims.

Officials estimated that between 100 and 500 people in the city are still missing.

Many Chileans complained that scores of deaths could have been avoided had the government responded faster to the earthquake, which set off a roaring tsunami a few hours later that killed many who had survived the quake.

“Nobody showed up around here to warn us,” said Alejandra Jara, a 28-year-old resident of La Pesca, a small fishing village just north of Constitucion.

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“We fled on our own because we know that when there’s a big earthquake, you have to leave everything and take off.”

Manuel Parra, who also ran for higher ground, was one of many residents whose seafront homes were washed off foundations. “Those who went inland up the hill survived. Those who didn’t are no longer here,” said the 64 year-old.

The government has acknowledged that rescue efforts have been slow, in part because of mangled roads and power cuts. But officials also misjudged the extent of the damage, initially declining offers for international aid.

TENSIONS HIGH

The looting and violence that followed the quake prompted some people in Concepcion to band together to protect their homes, armed with sticks and shotguns.

With tensions high in Concepcion, soldiers were delivering food and other basic supplies house to house.

Food, blankets and medical equipment were being sent to some of the estimated two million people affected by the quake, but residents complained of skyrocketing prices for everyday staples like bread and milk.

Making a stop on a tour of Latin America, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered 20 satellite phones to help in relief efforts. Bachelet, who is in her last days in office, said Chile was now asking other countries to help supply desalination plants and power generators.

Slideshow ( 34 images )

Most of Concepcion remained without water and electricity as rescue teams used shovels and drills to find possible survivors in the rubble of a collapsed 14-story apartment block.

The looting and a growing perception that government relief efforts have been slow have tainted the country’s hard-earned image as Latin America’s beacon of order and stability.

But both the human and economic cost could have been a lot worse given the size of the quake, one of the world’s biggest in the past century. Chile’s rigid building codes left it much more prepared for a quake than Haiti, where more than 200,000 were killed in January in a 7.0-magnitude quake.

Slideshow ( 34 images )

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

Chile has the most stable economy in Latin America but the huge quake and tsunamis have hit its efforts to climb out of a recession triggered by the global economic downturn.

Some analysts estimate the damage could cost Chile up to $30 billion, or about 15 percent of its gross domestic product.

Asked what it would cost to rebuild, Bachelet said: “I can only say it will be a lot.”

The disaster also hands billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera a mammoth challenge days before he is sworn in as Chile’s new president.

Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to an average of 6 percent a year and create a million new jobs. On Tuesday, he said the quake had not altered his economic goals.

“Those figures remain,” he said, adding that the reconstruction phase could accelerate growth and job creation.

The government has forecast the economy will grow between 4.5 percent and 5.5 percent this year.

Chile is the world’s leading copper producer and supply concerns at first pushed global copper prices sharply higher but the country’s main mines have resumed work and prices fell sharply on Tuesday.

The Chilean peso gained more than 1 percent on Tuesday on bets that the government and pension funds will repatriate offshore funds to pay for the reconstruction effort.

The central bank has said it would keep interest rates at record lows to help stimulate the economy.

Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo in Concepcion; Simon Gardner, Alonso Soto, and Andrew Quinn in Santiago; Writing by Stuart Grudgings, Helen Popper, Kevin Gray and Todd Benson; Editing by Chris Wilson

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