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Chile: The Shakes Again

4 minute read

The Andes are young and violent mountains, not yet fully grown or pacified by time. Still-active volcanoes pock the spiny range running the length of western South America. Avalanches rumble down constantly from the 20,000-ft. peaks. And beneath the earth’s jagged crust, fantastic forces grind and churn, producing violent earthquakes—most often in Chile. Of the thousands of big and little tremors recorded around the world each year, about 15% occur in Chile. One quake in 1906 took 3,000 lives. Another in 1939 left 30,000 dead. Five years ago, still another killed 5,000 people. Last week Chile had the shakes again.

Rain of Stone. The time was 12:33 on a bright, warm Sunday afternoon. President Eduardo Frei was watching an air show outside Santiago when an invisible force seemed to seize and shake him. In Santiago’s Hipodromo, 3,000 racing fans fled in panic as the grandstand roof heaved and cracked. Terrified swimmers in the open-air pool of the Hotel Carrera watched the water suddenly leap in foot-high waves. Three blocks away, cornices peeled off the Supreme Court and Congress buildings and rained down on the street.

The quake lasted for one full minute across an area of 130,000 square miles. At its most severe, it registered 7.5 on the Richter scale (v. 8.5 for the 1960 quake), and for two hours it set seismographs squiggling as far away as central Italy, 7,500 miles to the east. Reports from Santiago told of 200 houses heavily damaged; amazingly, only four people were dead and ten injured. In Valparaiso, Chile’s major seaport, close to 30% of the buildings were damaged with 15 persons killed. Throughout the central part of the country, water mains burst, buildings collapsed, and whole towns seemed to dance.

Most seriously hit was El Cobre, a tiny copper town run by a subsidiary of Baron Guy de Rothschild’s Société Minière et Métallurgique de Penarroya. For 35 years the mineowners had channeled their slag into a reservoir behind a 230-ft. earth dam. Just below the dam were the wooden huts of the town’s 400 miners. When the tremors came, the dam gave way, and the thick, muddy waste exploded out across the valley, burying 200 people in seconds. One woman who saw it coming managed to scramble up a slope in time. “I could feel the muck spattering on my heels,” she recalled later. “Behind me there was nothing left, absolutely nothing. Only silence.”

Now to Rebuild. President Frei ordered army units into stricken areas with bulldozers, food and clothes. A tent village sprang up outside El Cobre, and the afternoon after the quake Frei himself arrived. “This is terrible, terrible,” he repeated. “Señor Presidente, help us,” pleaded one miner. “That is why I am here,” said Frei, “to be with you.” Army engineers dug for bodies, found 60.

At week’s end the country’s death toll was approaching 300. Some 18,000 people were homeless, and the total damage was estimated at between $50 million and $100 million. With his ministers, Frei mapped out relief and reconstruction programs, ordered an inquiry to determine whether the mining company or government inspectors were guilty of negligence in permitting the miners to live at the base of the El Cobre dam.

The bigger question was what effect the quake would have on Frei’s urgently needed reform program in the areas of land, housing, school and industrial development. In new elections last month, Frei’s Christian Democrats won an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies and planned a full-scale assault on Chile’s ills. They still plan to proceed despite the added burden of digging out from the earthquake.

President Johnson immediately offered U.S. assistance, and Frei responded with a request for “flour, condensed milk for children, and vehicles to transport water.” Yet Chile’s President did not ask—or expect—a massive infusion of emergency funds. He intends to float a special bond issue at home to finance reconstruction, thus leaving the $1 billion national budget intact. “We cannot appeal to the world every four years to help us lift ourselves from the ground,” he said. “We Chileans ourselves will raise the towns that were destroyed.”

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