March 3, 2010 / 6:09 AM / 10 years ago

Chile's leader pleads for calm, aftershocks sow fear

CONCEPCION, Chile (Reuters) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet pleaded with Chileans on Wednesday to stop hoarding supplies and help with relief efforts, deflecting criticism that her government was slow to respond to one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes in a century.

Earthquake survivors run away from the coast to higher ground after a tsunami warning was issued following a strong aftershock, in Constitucion, March 3, 2010. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

Four days after the 8.8-magnitude quake killed more than 800 people in central Chile, police and troops have managed to quell looting and violence in the hard-hit city of Concepcion, which was rocked by back-to-back aftershocks that sent people fleeing to the hills fearing a new tsunami.

With tensions still running high in the disaster area, an emotional Bachelet broke into tears as she urged the population to remain calm in the face of Chile’s worst natural disaster in 50 years. She also sought to allay concerns of potential food and fuel shortages.

“There is enough food and therefore we must remain calm. There is also enough fuel, there is no risk of shortages,” she said in a nationally televised speech.

Hours later, she took her message to the radio waves, calling on Chileans to band together to rebuild what has long been one of Latin America’s most stable economies.

“Be confident ... Chile is going to stand on its feet again,” said Bachelet, a popular president who is in her last days in office.

The government raised the official death toll from the quake and ensuing tsunami along Chile’s coastline to 802, a number Bachelet said is sure to rise.

An 18-hour curfew remained in place in Concepcion, Chile’s second-biggest city, and 14,000 troops patrolled the streets in devastated areas to keep order and oversee aid distribution.

Military trucks and helicopters delivered food and water, while rescue crews searched coastal hamlets north of Concepcion for any survivors trapped in the debris.

In Constitucion, one of several coastal villages nearly wiped out by the disaster, some reports put the number of missing as high as 500. The town, with a population of about 40,000, accounts for almost half of the official death toll.

Bachelet asked Chileans to avoid stockpiling food so supplies could be distributed fairly. But the plea fell on deaf ears in Constitucion, where prices for foodstuffs such as flour and sugar have skyrocketed because of hoarding and looting.

“Here at the corner store, the owner is selling things at three times the price,” said Amelia Quipainao, 52, who organized a soup kitchen for people who had lost their homes.

Chilean emergency officials and the military blamed each other for not clearly warning coastal villages of tsunamis, angering survivors who lost relatives and friends in the massive waves that followed the quake.

“People died because of a lack of information,” said Valder Vera, a survivor in Dichato, a fishing village north of Concepcion that was destroyed.


Bachelet, whose approval rating hit 83 percent in February, has been criticized for declining offers of international aid in the initial hours after the quake.

She acknowledged that rescue efforts were slow to start but defended the government’s actions in the days since.

NASA said its models showed Saturday's quake was so powerful that it shifted the earth's axis by about 8 cm (3 inches) and slightly shortened the length of a day, by just over one millionth of a second.

In the southern province of Nuble, some people were still camping out on high ground and refused to return to their hometowns for fear of aftershocks and tsunamis.

At least two strong aftershocks were felt on Wednesday in the capital of Santiago, which suffered less damage from Saturday’s quake. A sense of normalcy was returning to the city, with flights slowly resuming at the airport after being completely shut down for almost two days after the quake.

The disaster hit Chile, the world’s leading copper producer, just as it was bouncing back from a recession triggered by the global economic downturn.

Still, ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service maintained a positive outlook on Chile’s sovereign ratings, highlighting the strength of its public finances.

Most of the country’s huge copper mines have returned to normal activity, easing supply fears that sent global copper prices sharply higher on Monday. Chile’s largest oil refinery, however, could be down for a month.

Incoming Finance Minister Felipe Larrain told Reuters he was studying options to fund reconstruction. Analysts say the next government, which takes office on March 11, may be forced to issue debt, tap into savings from copper boom times or seek credit lines.

Some analysts estimate the damage could cost up to $30 billion, nearly 15 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product.

The disaster poses a daunting challenge for billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, a conservative who was elected president in January, ending 20 years of center-left rule.

Slideshow (30 Images)

Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to 6 percent per year, but could see his government undermined if reconstruction efforts drag.

The economy had been expected to grow around 5 percent this year, but analysts see the quake eroding between 1 and 2 percentage points off that forecast.

Additional reporting by Ignacio Badal in Constitucion, Miguel Lo Bianco in Concepcion, and Simon Gardner, Mica Rosenberg and Alonso Soto in Santiago; Writing by Todd Benson; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Chris Wilson

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