March 3, 2010 / 11:18 PM / 10 years ago

Price gouging adds to misery after Chile quake

CONSTITUCION, Chile (Reuters) - Spiraling prices for everything from fuel to food and baby diapers are adding to the misery of survivors in Chilean coastal towns hit by a massive earthquake and deadly tsunamis.

In the devastated town of Constitucion, where 350 people are estimated to have been killed in Saturday’s disaster, exhausted residents are having to fork out more than three times the normal price for essential foods such as flour.

While supply shortages were one factor, residents also blamed price gougers who they said had looted stores in the wake of the quakes and were now selling the stolen goods at inflated prices.

“People with trucks shouted that another tsunami was coming and everyone ran for the hills,” said 50-year-old Rosa Poblete, who was heating water on the street with a group of neighbors.

“When they were alone they took all the bags of flour and are now selling a 40 kg (88 pound) bag for 50,000 pesos ($96), up from 15,000 before the quake.”

President Michelle Bachelet called on Chileans on Wednesday to avoid stockpiling food so supplies could be distributed fairly. But her government has acknowledged that food aid has been slow to arrive in devastated areas due to damaged roads and collapsed bridges.

TV footage showed a long line of weary Chileans outside a supermarket that was among the first to reopen in the badly hit city of Concepcion.

“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 lost their homes in Constitucion.

Heavy looting broke out in several towns and cities in the central region affected by the quake, which killed more than 800 people. But while most looters took basic goods to feed themselves and their families, others went about it in a far more systematic way, working in gangs to fill up large trucks.

“I took a bag of flour to feed my family,” admitted 54-year-old Nelson Gomez. “But there were guys next to me putting a whole load of bags in trucks.”

Roberto Diaz, a 24-year-old who was cooking on the street, confirmed stories of organized looting and price-gouging.

“Those who have most are those who robbed most so they could sell it back to us, who are the poorest and the worst affected,” he said.

($1=516.60 Chilean pesos)

Writing by Stuart Grudgings, Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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