Image: Chilean soldiers arrest alleged looters
Claudio Santana  /  AFP - Getty Images
Soldiers arrest alleged looters in Concepcion, Chile, on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/2/2010 7:19:02 PM ET 2010-03-03T00:19:02

Facing angry survivors who had little warning of the coming tsunami, and who still are waiting for aid three days after the devastating earthquake, Chile's government used helicopters and boats to step up food deliveries on Tuesday as the death toll rose to nearly 800.

Chileans desperate for food and water swarmed soldiers as an army helicopter touched down in the devastated coastal town of Constitucion, which was hit by three giant waves set off by Saturday's massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

The government dispatched more troops to restore order in the country's second-largest city, Concepcion, which was placed under curfew for 18 hours a day after looters raided stores and burned a supermarket.

More suspected looters were arrested there Tuesday, though President Michelle Bachelet said order had been restored in the city, which bore the brunt of the quake along with coastal towns that were also devastated by tsunamis.

Constitucion, with a population of nearly 40,000, accounts for nearly half of the official death toll, which Bachelet said rose to 795.

Surrounded by three hills, the town was turned into a ruin of flattened homes and toppled buildings. Wooden homes perched atop the hillsides were among the only buildings left standing. Residents said they were caught by surprise.

"Nobody warned us. We just heard the ocean and ran for the hills," said 58-year-old Raquel Pena. "There was no warning from the police or the navy. They jumped in their trucks and drove off."

Manuel Parra, who also ran for higher ground, was one of many residents whose seafront homes were washed off foundations.

"Those who went inland up the hill survived. Those who didn't are no longer here," the 64 year-old said.

Dozens of bodies were lined up on the floor of a makeshift morgue in a high-school gymnasium, and officials estimated that between 100 and 500 people were still unaccounted for.

Chile's defense minister has said the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning. He said port captains who did call warnings in several coastal towns saved hundreds of lives.

The scene in Constitucion was similar in beach towns along some 300 miles of coastline.

AftershocksIn Pelluhue, nearly three dozen retirees were missing after their bus was swept away by the tsunami. Five bodies were recovered by Monday.

Some 300 homes were destroyed in the town.

In Curanipe, the local church served as a morgue. In Cauquenes, people quickly buried their dead because the funeral home had no electricity.

In the village of Dichato, teenagers drinking on the beach were the first to shout the warning when they saw a horseshoe-shaped bay empty about an hour after the quake. They ran through the streets, screaming. Police joined them, using megaphones.

The water rose steadily, surging above the second floors of homes and lifting them off their foundations. Cars were stacked three high in the streets. Miles inland along a river valley, cows munched next to marooned boats, refrigerators, sofas and other debris.

"The maritime radio said there wouldn't be a tsunami," said Rogilio Reyes, who was warned off by the teenagers.

Dichato Mayor Eduardo Aguilera said 49 people were missing and 800 homes were destroyed. Some people fled to high ground, only to return too early and get caught by the tsunami, he said.

No word in Talcahuano
After the quake rocked the gritty port town of Talcahuano, Marioli Gatica and her extended family huddled in a circle on the floor of their seaside wooden home, listening to the radio by a lantern's light.

Slideshow: Shattered

They heard firefighters urging citizens to stay calm and stay inside. They heard nothing about a tsunami — until it slammed into their house with an unearthly roar. Gatica's house exploded with water. The family was swept below the surface, swirling amid loose ship containers and other heavy debris that smashed buildings into oblivion all around them.

"We were sitting there one moment and the next I looked up into the water and saw cables and furniture floating," Gatica said.

Two of the giant containers crushed Gatica's home. A third grounded between the ocean and where she floated, keeping the retreating tsunami from dragging her and other relatives out to sea. Her 11-year-old daughter, Ninoska Elgueta, clung to a tree as the wave retreated.

All the family survived except Gatica's 76-year-old mother, Nery Valdebenito, Gatica said. "I think my mother is trapped beneath" the house.

Firefighters with search dogs examined the ruins of her home. The group leader drew his finger across his neck: No one alive there.

Close to 80 percent of Talcahuano's 180,000 people are homeless, with 10,000 homes uninhabitable and hundreds more destroyed, Mayor Gaston Saavedra said.

Residents take up arms
The region's biggest city, Concepcion suffered waves of looting before some 1,500 troops arrived to enforce an 8 p.m. to noon curfew that finally brought calm by Tuesday. Nearly every store had been looted, some even set on fire, in a city still lacking food, water and electricity.

Some people armed with sticks and shotguns banded together with neighbors to protect their stricken homes from looters, and many complained that government food aid and other supplies were arriving too slowly.

President Michelle Bachelet said 14,000 troops were deployed for security across the region.

Chileans seemed deeply troubled by what the disaster showed about their government — and themselves. Some looters were people grabbing basic necessities like toilet paper, but many appeared to be well-dressed citizens carting off electronic goods.

Catalina Sandoval, a 22-year-old construction engineering student in Concepcion, said she felt "rage, impotence and disillusion" with the lawlessness.

"I'm shocked," Sandoval said. "Not only criminals but well-off people are stealing."

Leonardo Sanhueza lamented in the Ultimas Noticias newspaper a "social disintegration" in the wealthy country that has led some people simply "to look out for themselves — and let the rest eat like dogs." Food, blankets and medical equipment were being sent to some of the estimated 2 million people affected by the quake, but residents complained of skyrocketing prices for everyday staples like bread and milk.

With tensions still high in Concepcion, soldiers were delivering food and other basic supplies house to house.

Most of Concepcion remained without water and electricity as rescue teams worked with shovels and drills to find possible survivors in the rubble of a collapsed 15-story apartment block.

The government has said rescue efforts have been slowed by badly damaged roads, fallen power lines and in some areas, violence.

In Talca, where the main hospital partly collapsed, residents criticized the aid response. Doctors and nurses have had to treat wounded quake victims in a clinic.

Video: In Constitucion, shockwaves still reverberate "We haven't got any help from the government. We were expecting more and are still waiting for the three basics — food, water and electricity," said Damian Vera Vergara.

Making a stop on a tour of Latin America, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered 20 satellite phones to help in relief efforts. Bachelet, who initially did not ask other countries for aid, said Chile was now asking other countries to help supply desalination plants and power generators.

Uphill for incoming president
The looting and a growing perception that government relief efforts have been slow have undermined the country's hard-earned image as Latin America's beacon of order and stability.

But both the human and economic cost could have been a lot worse given the size of the quake, one of the world's biggest in the past century.

Chile has the most stable economy in Latin America but the huge quake and tsunamis have hit its efforts to climb out of a recession triggered by the global economic downturn.

The disaster also hands billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera a mammoth reconstruction challenge days before he is sworn in as Chile's new president.

Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to an average of 6 percent a year and create a million new jobs. On Tuesday, he said the quake had not altered his economic goals.

"Those figures remain," he said, adding the reconstruction phase could accelerate growth and job creation.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Chile comes to grips with post-quake crisis

  1. Closed captioning of: Chile comes to grips with post-quake crisis

    >> for your reporting tonight. there are big differences between the recent quake in haiti and this one in chile, a country which, after all, has a functioning government, higher quality construction and actual infrastructure in place, but has the government's response there been up to the enormous task? that part of the story tonight from nbc's mark potter in santiago.

    >> reporter: throughout the disaster zone, desperate victims with no food, water or basic supplies have been complaining loudly about the lack of relief effort. wondering where is the government? this man says, "we need the authorities. we have nothing to eat. we are pulling stuff from the garbage." this woman says, "we lost everything. everything." today outgoing chilean president michelle bachelet announced that hundreds of tons of food, water and other supplies are being distributed now. she also welcomed secretary of state hillary clinton who delivered satellite phones and promised more u.s. assistance.

    >> i'm going to give this one to you, madam president.

    >> reporter: more aid is coming from other countries and the united nations . critics say that the chilean government 's relief efforts now are what it should have begun over the weekend after the earthquake struck early saturday morning. even the government itself criticizes the chilean navy for failing to warn the public about the tsunami danger after the earthquake. and the former speaker of the chilean house says the military should have mobilized immediately to coordinate the relief effort.

    >> the army has the resources, has the equipment and has the training to deal with these kinds of situations, and i think we waited too long.

    >> reporter: the interior minister says such a large relief effort takes a long time to coordinate properly, leaving the new government which is to be sworn in next week, with the challenge of reassuring the public that help is on the way . mark potter , nbc news, santiago, chile.

    >>> there is more information on how you can support the relief efforts under way in chile. we posted all of it on our website nightly.msnbc.com.

    >>> in this country, another hearing

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