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Aid for Chile quake victims arrives

Chile steps up efforts to deliver key supplies after criticism over its disaster response.

March 03, 2010|By Patrick J. McDonnell

Reporting from Constitucion, Chile — Shipments of food, water, clothing and other basics finally began pouring in Wednesday to this earthquake-devastated town, where increasingly hungry and frustrated residents have harshly criticized what they term a tardy response by the national government.

Still, fear and anger continued to stalk the community as well as other hard-hit coastal cities, such as Concepcion -- where false reports of a tsunami alert after a particularly strong aftershock sent panicked residents rushing uphill toward the mountains.

In this working-class town about 175 miles south of Santiago, the Chilean capital, many residents Wednesday donned surgical masks against the odor of decomposing bodies and other organic material inside collapsed buildings. Bulldozers and other machinery finally arrived to pick through the debris. A refrigerator truck that was parked alongside a temporary morgue began handling unclaimed corpses.

Of the 800 deaths nationwide from Saturday's magnitude 8.8 quake, about 500 are believed to have occurred in this forestry center of 55,000. About 100 bodies have been recovered and others continue to wash up in the surf, with the rest presumed to have been swept into the Pacific.

Officials say 90% of the central area of town was damaged or flattened by the earthquake and ensuing series of tsunami waves, which they said reached almost 100 feet in height nearly two miles inland, washing away thousands of residences. The Chilean military has acknowledged it erred in failing to alert local authorities and residents to the likelihood of a tsunami.

Defensive about having responded slowly, the Chilean government has stepped up efforts to deliver truckloads of food and other essential supplies.

"Finally, we know there is food available," said Margarita Arabela, 38, a mother of two who, armed with pots and pans, arrived at the Chacarillas school in Constitucion on Wednesday to collect a donated lunch. The schoolhouse was one of several sites set up around town to distribute food and clothing.

"It took so long, we were really worried. But this is a great relief."

The food came from both the government and from private donors. The Chacarillas school, on a hillside above town, was gearing up to serve about 700 meals a day. Residents who lost everything could also choose from stacks of donated clothing and shoes.

However, Arabela and others continued to criticize what they called a slow and confusing response for a city where all of the shops were sacked and, until Tuesday, there was virtually no food to be purchased. Some shops here began stocking fresh fruit and vegetables again Wednesday.

Several hungry residents said they heard about the shelters through word of mouth, and were disappointed there was no broader distribution from central points through outlying neighborhoods.

"We were really preoccupied about what we would find to eat," said Maria Valenzuela, who is one of many here living in a makeshift camp in the hills after her home was destroyed.

Signs on the road into town blared out their message: "We need food." "Hungry Women and Children." "Food please."

Officials are asking the needy to register for aid, including food, clothing and diapers. Many complained that they had given their names this week but heard nothing back.

"We gave all our particulars and told them what we need, but so far nothing has arrived," said Jorge Orrellano, 58, a lifetime resident.

The military arrived in force Tuesday, restoring a measure of calm to a city that had gone through a period of near-anarchy after Saturday's temblor. Military teams were also distributing water from trucks and easing access into and departure from the city, providing a new sense of order.

Soldiers also guarded food convoys and the temporary air base on a soccer field where helicopters with aid and officials were arriving.

"Things have gotten better, but the army should have been here right away -- and the food," said Jorge Gonzalez, a retired social worker who was lending a hand at the besieged City Hall.

On the steps outside, Constitucion's beleaguered mayor, Hugo Tilleria, was fielding complaints from survivors and phone calls from potential aid donors, including the mayor of the city of Valparaiso.

"We have lived through a catastrophe," Tilleria told his Valparaiso colleague by cellphone, as reporters and others listened. "We need everything: diapers, food, clothing. Whatever you can send we appreciate. This is a major disaster, a calamity."

Some power and cellphone services were restored, but the city mostly remained without electricity and water. Many say it will take years to rebuild the town, once a colonial-era shipbuilding center and later a posh beach resort favored by the elite from Santiago. Chic vacationers long ago abandoned Constitucion, which is now a center for processing pines from nearby hills long ago denuded of their native woods.

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