Quake survivor: 'I did not support Pinochet, but now we could do with him'

Residents in Chile's second city condemn government's slow response to the crisis
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The Independent US

The Chilean city just 50 kilometres from the epicentre of the weekend's devastating earthquake was finally becalmed by the introduction of martial law yesterday. But as frightened locals in Concepcion, Chile's second largest city, barricaded themselves inside their homes, the country was still struggling to get aid to the areas that needed it most.

About 3,000 troops patrolled the city yesterday as the nationwide death toll across the country rose to 796. President Michelle Bachelet had deployed the soldiers to quell looting and civil unrest. The declaration of martial law brought the city under curfew overnight until midday yesterday; the conditions were reimposed at 6 o'clock last night.

Local residents had begun to pour into the streets soon after the earthquake hit. And with the government unable to respond quickly enough to meet their needs, hundreds of poor residents eventually broke into supermarkets in search of food. Soon mobs were ransacking whatever they could get hold of throughout the city.

Angelea Villalobos, 41, saw looters driven back from a supermarket by police using tear gas and water cannons on Sunday. Now she and her family are barricaded in the rubble of their 1932 home and storefront. She and her neighbours have set up makeshift fences to keep outsiders at bay. Last night, she heard guns fired. "Until yesterday, this was a lawless no man's land," she said.

Others, like Caroline Poblete, 34, a housewife with two children, have complained that the government's response has been slow and inadequate. "I did not support General Augusto Pinochet, but right now we could use a Pinochet," she said in disgust. Yesterday, the central authorities were still calculating how to get food, water and medical supplies to the worst-hit areas.

Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, arrived in Santiago as part of her pre-arranged Latin American tour and delivered telecommunications equipment to help the relief effort. "We stand ready to help in any way that the government of Chile asks us to," she said.

In Concepcion, basic services are still lacking in most of the city. Many residents ride the streets on bicycles as they have no access to petrol. Water service has been restored to only a few homes in the city centre. Buses are arriving carrying worried family members. And today newspapers arrived for the first time since the earthquake hit early on Saturday morning.

"Have you heard what has happened to the town of Constitution? How is Santiago faring after the earthquake?" asks Alex Canete, a social worker, who is helping the regional government deliver food to residents.

The reports from other parts of the country were not good yesterday. Aid workers in some of the smaller rural towns and port cities along the south-central coastline reported finding scenes of destruction worse than some had ever encountered before.

"I have never seen anything like this," said Paula Saez, a relief worker with World Vision who had only just returned from Haiti. She was reporting from Dichato, a small fishing town that like many others along the coast was hit first by the rattling of the ground that loosened buildings and moments later by an enormous rolling tsunami that smashed homes or simply lifted them from the ground. "Boats are in the middle of the city. The earthquake damaged some things but the sea took everything away."

Elsewhere, horrified locals heard of a busload of 40 holidaying retirees swept out to the ocean in the town of Pelluhue. And in the port city of Talcahuano, as many as 180,000 people are homeless, with 10,000 homes uninhabitable and many more in ruins, Mayor Gaston Saavedra reported last night.

Disaster that rocked world: How the Earth's axis moved

The earthquake in Chile has probably shortened the length of the day by about 1.26 millionths of a second, according to a Nasa study. The magnitude 8.8 quake may have moved on its axis by about 7cm, Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says.

Dr Richard Gross, a scientist at the laboratory in Pasadena, California, has calculated that the strength of the quake and its location resulted in a slight movement of the Earth's figure axis, around which the mass of the planet is balanced. One implication of the shift is that the speed of rotation around this axis has probably increased so that the day length has been shortened – a reversal of the historic process of the Earth's rotation slowing down and the days getting gradually longer over the millennia as a consequence.

Dr Gross said that the Sumatran earthquake that caused the Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, which was magnitude 9.1, probably shortened the day length by 6.8 millionths of a second. Although the Chilean earthquake was smaller, it still caused a greater shift of the Earth on its figure axis because it occurred further from the equator.

Another reason why the Chilean earthquake was more effective in moving the Earth on its axis is because it occurred on a fault that strikes into the Earth's crust at a much steeper angle than the Sumatran fault, he said. Although the changes to the length of the day are so small as to be indetectable, they are permanent.

Steve Connor

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