When the Chilean city of Coquimbo was hit by a 4.5-metre tsunami wave on 16 September, the surge of water crushed a neighbourhood of small, independent fishing outfits. Nearly 200 boats were destroyed: some dragged out to sea, others piled onshore like driftwood or dumped inland, many blocks from the ocean.
A million people were evacuated. Had we not had such an evacuation, there would have been many, many more deaths
A river of water pushed debris and sand throughout a bustling section of the town’s waterfront just as darkness was settling on the 150,000-person city. Nine people were killed in the Coquimbo region, and a further four elsewhere in Chile.
So why did only 13 die in an quake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale – the world’s strongest earthquake to date this year – while far weaker earthquakes in Haiti and, more recently, Nepal, killed tens of thousands?
Part of the answer lies inside a field hospital tent in Santiago, Chile’s capital and largest city where, on Wednesday 24 September, huddled around plastic tables and squished against the walls of a military tent lit by fluorescent tubes, search and rescue teams from Peru, El Salvador, the United States and Spain take part in a previously scheduled rescue simulation known as Simex 2015. Sipping tepid coffee, they debate where to search with dogs, which collapsed building might possibly contain dead bodies and how best to rescue tsunami victims along the coast.
Organised by the UN humanitarian affairs office and the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group [Insarag], the Simex meetings were launched in the wake of huge quakes in Armenia and Mexico. Today Insarag is a leading authority on best practices to organise urban search and rescue operations following earthquakes. The weeklong meeting in Santiago includes a full-scale emergency reaction to a simulated 9.0 earthquake hit with an epicentre in Santiago.
“This is an exercise,” says Ricardo Toro, a former army general now in charge of Chile’s disaster relief agency, ONEMI. “We have a plan called ‘Chile Prepares’ of which the principal and most important part is evacuation exercises. Every year we – at a minimum – run six or seven evacuations of entire regions.”
Describing the evacuations during the initial hours after last Wednesday’s quake, Toro says: “A million people were evacuated and that saved a lot of lives. Had we not had such an evacuation, there would have been many, many more deaths.”
Toro knows first-hand the deadly nature of giant earthquakes. Under the command of the UN, he was stationed in Port au Prince in 2010 when the 7.7-magnitude earthquake destroyed the city. Thousands of poorly designed buildings, with little or no reinforced concrete, completely collapsed. Medical facilities and search and rescue teams were overwhelmed. Within a week, the death toll from the Haitian quake was estimated at more than 200,000 – including Maria Teresa Dowling, Toro’s wife.
“I lost my wife and that gives me quite a bit of empathy with the people who suffer losses,” he says. “That is why these prevention systems have to focus on saving lives.
“I think Haiti was the beginning. The rescue teams that arrived were not coordinated. They worried more about where the press was in order to get attention. Now it is a professional procedure, with protocols. In a disaster, improvisation is the worst.”
“Five years ago, we never could have imagined having an exercise like this in Chile,” says Christophe Schmachtel, a UN humanitarian affairs officer based in Geneva. “In 2010 [when Chile suffered another devastating earthquake], I had no focal points here. We didn’t know who to call.
“Our way to inform the international community was to watch TV and then report to UN Agencies … It took us two or three days to get through and get official, direct information. The government of Chile did not have much information on how the international community was organised and worked. That has changed.”
In the most recent earthquake, a new system of warnings was used to alert the population. Within minutes of the quake, downtown Coquimbo and its coastal areas were rocked by loud sirens. A convoy of ambulances, firefighters and police sought to accelerate the evacuation, as officers convinced reluctant homeowners to head for the hills. Mobile phones were targeted with a series of tsunami warning messages, urging residents to abandon the coastal areas.