Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Chilean earthquake of February 27

The 8.8 magnitude earthquake that affected Chile on February 27th of this year was in the top ten in recorded history, affected 80% of the country's population, and caused $30 billion in estimated damages, a sum equaling 18% of the country's Gross Domestic Product. Considering the immensity and size of the quake, the death toll of 576 (nearly half of which came from the impact of a tsunami on the coast) is remarkable. Why were the number of deaths so low?

I am here in Santiago with a team assembled by the American Red Cross to find out why. The team of 18 includes a civil engineering instructor from the University of Colorado, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey, a trauma surgeon, as well as public health and mass care specialists from the Red Cross and the states of California and Florida. The government of Chile and the Chilean Red Cross have made available to us in the last two days key individuals who have provided us with a wealth of information. This information is being captured by the team and will be included in our final written report.

At the end of each day we meet to go over what we have we have heard and attempt to digest what we have learned. A word that I have seen in many emergency management articles in the last six months is "resiliance" and this word has come up in our discussions about Chile. The people and country of Chile appear to have developed a culture of resiliance. How did they do it, and what can we learn in order to transfer this culture to our own country?

The largest quake in recorded history was a 9.2 magnitude that ocurred in 1960, off the southern coast of Chile. The quake affected a part of the country that was less densely populated, but did result in a change to the building codes. Another quake in 1985 resulted in a further strenthening of their building codes. Consequently, only two large buildings collapsed during the 2010 quake. Over 300,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the recent quake, but they were all older, smaller buildings made of adobe.

The coastal inhabitants of Chile are primarily involved in the country's large fishing industry, and they grew up listening to stories about the 1960 quake from their parents and grandparents. The warning they heard was, "If the ground shakes so much that you cannot walk, then when the shaking stops you must run to high ground. Don't wait for a warning from the government. Run." And run they did. Most of the tsunami deaths were from tourists visiting the coast who failed to follow the locals as they moved to high ground. This is what we mean by a culture of resilience. 

We have heard what the people in the capital have had to say about the government's response to this catastrophe. Tomorrow we drive into the earthquake zone to talk to the people who had to experience it on the ground. We are interested in hearing what they have to say. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My trip to Chile with the Red Cross

I was invited to participate by the American Red Cross as a mass care subject matter expert on a team of 18 persons on a trip to Chile. The purpose of the trip is to gather some of the hard lessons learned by the Chileans as a result of the terrible earthquake they suffered in February of this year. We depart on this Red Cross sponsored trip this Sunday, July 18 and will return to the United States on July 28th.

Although I am taking leave from my job to make this trip, my emergency management responsibilities required that I request and receive permission to leave the country during hurricane season. My condition for participation to the Red Cross was that I be allowed to scurry home if a big storm threatens Florida.

I have known about the possibility of this trip since May, but was afraid to talk about it (or even think about it) until the last few days, when it looked like the Storm Gods were going to smile on me for at least the next 7 days. But now that it looks like I am going to be able to go, I am excited and see this as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

My lifelong urge for once-in-a-lifetime adventures was dramatically diminished after Iraq, but it it has been six years since my return from the Middle East, and I feel ready for another adventure, even if it is only of the small, ten-day variety.

I have seen the tentative itinerary, and after some initial meetings in Santiago, the capital, we travel south by vehicle into the earthquake zone. I have studied the local newspapers on the Internet, and the stories I read have confirmed that the country is still suffering through numerous, complex problems caused by the event. Yet, since these problems are no longer reported by CNN or Fox News or the New York Times, the people of the United States know nothing about them.

But I will.

I have been to every country in Latin American except Cuba and El Salvador (I have been to Chile twice). I speak fluent Spanish. But this trip will be different. Traveling outside the capital by vehicle, and getting to see and talk to emergency managers and survivors of one of the largest earthquakes in recent history, will be educational and enlightening.

There are real emergency management lessons to be learned there in Chile, lessons that we can bring back home for use in California, and even in Florida. I am going to do my best to find them.