President Michelle Bachelet didn’t flinch Thursday when a magnitude-6.8 aftershock — a major earthquake in its own right — hit the rubble-filled street where she was reassuring residents left homeless by a major temblor.
Bodyguards tried to move the president to safety as power poles around her swung wildly and women in the crowd edged nervously away. But Bachelet kept smiling, calmly reassuring survivors that the government would help them.
“We are here, in the field, working to help you,” Bachelet said. “But be calm. I can’t to go to every house to check. There’s no need to see all of them.”
The president flew to several northern Chilean towns Thursday to see first-hand the damage caused by a magnitude-7.7 earthquake the day before that killed two people, injured more than 150 and left 15,000 homeless.
Her government sent hundreds of portable homes to the region Thursday and set up a military hospital in Tocopilla after the local hospital was badly damaged. Government workers and soldiers scrambled to distribute tons of food, water and medicine.
Even as they worked, major aftershocks shook the area. The U.S. Geological Survey measured one as magnitude-6.2 and another as magnitude-6.8. Chile’s Emergency Bureau said there was no further damage from the aftershocks.
A strong earthquake also shook the Peru-Ecuador border late Thursday but there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the quake’s magnitude at 6.7.
Hardest hit by the Chile quake were Tocopilla, a port city of 27,000, and the smaller, nearby mining town of Maria Elena. Presidential spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber said both would be declared disaster areas to expedite aid delivery.
“There is much fear and despair, and that is normal,” Bachelet told Tocopilla residents. “But people should organize and respond to emergency plans.”
The president was accompanied by four cabinet chiefs including Housing Minister Patricia Poblete, who said many structures cannot be saved. Firefighters and other workers began demolishing the most severely damaged Thursday.
Bachelet also visited tiny Quillagua, the closest town to the epicenter, with a population around 100. One person suffered minor injuries there and 15 houses were damaged.
Electricity was restored in most of Tocopilla. Running water wasn’t, but army trucks distributed water throughout the city. Maria Elena remained without running water or electricity.
Cars become shelters
Hundreds of residents slept in cars or tents in front of their houses. Officials set up shelters in schools, but said many were refusing to go, fearing their homes would be looted if left unattended.
“We slept in the car, because we have to care for whatever the quake didn’t destroy,” said resident Luis Porcel.
Many Tocopilla residents accused shopkeepers of price gouging, saying a single radio battery was being sold for $2.40 and a bottle of water was going for $4. Gov. Edgardo Solis said that wouldn’t be tolerated, but didn’t say what would be done.
Chile is the world’s top copper producer, and Chile’s largest copper mines are in the quake area. Global copper prices rose Wednesday on fears that supply would be interrupted, but pulled back Thursday as power was restored and mines began operating normally again.
Alfredo Ovalle, president of the National Mining Society, said the quake cost the industry $20 million in infrastructure damage and lost production.
Chile lies in one of the world’s most seismically active regions, where the Nazca tectonic plate is shoving itself beneath the South American plate.