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Chile pins recovery hopes on new president

Survivors throughout Chile's disaster zone are hoping President-elect Sebastian Pinera - conservative billionaire who takes office next week - is up to the job of rebuilding quake-ravaged towns.
People stand next to a fishing boat Thursday that ran aground in Dichato, Chile, due to a tsunami generated by Saturday's quake.
People stand next to a fishing boat Thursday that ran aground in Dichato, Chile, due to a tsunami generated by Saturday's quake.Ricardo Mazalan / Associated Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chile's earthquake and tsunami smashed this pretty little tourist town into splinters, leaving little more than immense piles of wreckage and an awful stench. Rooting through the remains Thursday, Dichato's residents said they are pinning their hopes for renewal on the new president, a conservative billionaire who takes office next week.

Nothing short of mammoth reconstruction can return Dichato to a semblance of what it was, and survivors here — and throughout the disaster zone — said they're hoping President-elect Sebastian Pinera is up to the job.

"Chile is a country on the rise, economically strong, with many businesses. And because of this we expected more" of President Michelle Bachelet's leftist administration, said Amanda Ruiz, a secretary in a construction firm. "We're disillusioned."

"I think he has the ability to do it," said Luis Omar Cid Jara, 66, whose bakery and roast chicken shop on Dichato's main street were destroyed.

Critics said Bachelet initially was reluctant to summon the military to stop looting and deliver aid, given the armed forces' brutal repression of the Chilean left in the past, especially during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Pinera, who takes office March 11, stepped up his criticism of the outgoing president. He called Thursday for a sweeping modernization of Chile's disaster system to eliminate what he called "the lack of coordination and the weaknesses that this tragedy has uncovered with brutal eloquence."

'Chile will rise'
Pinera named new governors for the six hardest-hit regions and told them to get to work even before his inauguration.

His immediate priorities: Find the missing; ensure law and order; restore utilities; and tend to the injured. Pinera said his administration will work more closely with the military on disasters than Bachelet, and he pledged to rebuild "with the most modern and efficient standards."

Bachelet, whose approval ratings were sky-high before the quake, bristled at the criticism and insisted "Chile will rise" from the devastation.

Touring an aid distribution center in the heavily damaged city of Concepcion, Bachelet denied any delays or indecision in the hours following Saturday's pre-dawn quake. Top military officers had complained they couldn't deploy troops to quash looting or deliver aid until Bachelet finally declared a state of emergency more than 24 hours after the temblor.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (R) , right, and Chile's President-elect Sebastian Pinera (L) join in a group photo with relief aid volunteers at the airport in Santiago, Chile on March 2, 2010. Chile has been in crisis since the February 27, 2010 massive quake, with troops ordered to the disaster zone to try to keep a lid on rampant looting, even as rescuers hunted survivors in the rubble. AFP PHOTO / Pool / Pablo Martinez Monsivais (Photo credit should read PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AFP/Getty Images)PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / Pool

'Country doesn't deserve this'
Rescue and recovery were in full swing in Dichato, where firefighters used long poles to probe for bodies in huge piles of muddy sand and beach wreckage. The navy ferried troops ashore to help unload 86 tons of food.

Volunteers canvassed camps up in the hills created by people who abandoned their ruined property in town, fearing another tsunami because of frequent aftershocks. They handed out carloads of clothing and food.

The magnitude-8.8 quake — one of the strongest on record — and the tsunami that followed ravaged a 435-mile stretch of Chile's Pacific coast. Government officials had put the death toll at more than 800 but on Thursday indicated that number could drop significantly.

A top newspaper in Santiago, El Mercurio, and the 24-horas Chilean Network both reported the death toll for the hard-hit Maule region, the area most affected by the quake and tsunami, is now 316. The Maule region had reported 587 dead before.

This will bring down the national death toll, which had been 802.

Bachelet's office and the undersecretary of the interior released statements indicating there was a mistake in counting the death toll for the Maule region. Without giving specifics, they blamed town officials who they said mistakenly added up the number of dead with the number of injured and then turned them in to federal authorities.

Bachelet said it could take at least three years to bring the region back.

"The country doesn't deserve this. It's going to be — it's going to be very hard moving ahead," she told ADN radio.

The army was flying in 320 tons of aid, and the navy was shipping 270 more tons to coastal towns cut off from the rest of Chile.

Town decimated
Dichato is nestled between pine-forested hills and a lovely sheltered bay where colorful fishing boats served coastal communities and export companies. Its residents proudly note their beach is the only one in the region where children could swim safely in the ocean. Its population of 4,000 triples each January and February with tourists — many were in town when disaster struck — and residents count on that brief summer vacation for much of their income.

The quake and tsunami killed at least 19 people in Dichato and smashed neat wooden houses and small hotels into huge splinter piles. The surge ruined most other buildings in town, which stank Thursday with decomposing fish. One fishing boat marooned far inland was full of rotting octopus.

The Bachelet government had made a difference in Dichato, building 130 neat mustard-yellow duplexes in a public housing project that just opened in September and providing 60 million pesos — $120,000 — to restore the facades of businesses along main street, said Mabel Gomez, president of the local chamber of commerce.

Gomez, 29, ran several small businesses, providing public baths on the beach, an Internet and phone center, and several small cabanas to tourists. But Dichato doesn't have a bank, and like many business owners, Gomez lost the entire season's profits — 6 million pesos, about $12,000 — she had planned to deposit later this month.

People take clothing sent to them as aid at a makeshift camp for quake survivors in Dichato, Chile, Thursday, March 4, 2010. An earthquake followed by a tsunami hit Chile's coastal central region on Feb. 27. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)Ricardo Mazalan / AP

"Just like the government has helped other countries, now it has to help us here," said Cid, the bakery and chicken shop owner. Booming profits from the state-owned Codelco mining company — which Bachelet zealously husbanded even as she spent more on social programs than any previous president — will have to be spent by Pinera on reconstruction, Cid said.

Chile has asked other countries and the United Nations for temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centers. Some 36 hospitals were either severely damaged or destroyed, Bachelet said Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon planned to meet both Bachelet and Pinera on Friday and tour Concepcion.

Pinera now plans an austere inaugural, with only brief stays by foreign dignitaries to enable police to focus on quake duty, and will fly to the disaster zone immediately after he is sworn in. Bachelet has canceled a farewell dinner planned for the eve of the inaugural.