Earthquake Relief Groups Take Different Paths in Chile, Haiti

Ginny McCabe | Contributing Writer | Thursday, March 4, 2010

Earthquake Relief Groups Take Different Paths in Chile, Haiti

March 5, 2010

As relief aid workers readied to go into Chile earlier this week, many agreed Haiti is still in a much desperate situation. Cultural, geographical and other differences between Haiti and Chile have all contributed to how each respective country has responded to its disaster.

These back-to-back natural disasters have painted a stark contrast. About one million Haitians are still homeless following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, which killed about 230,000 people. Saturday's 8.8 magnitude quake in Chile claimed more than 800 lives.

On Saturday, another disaster hit Chile when an 8.8 magnitude claimed nearly 800 lives.

"This quake is, in key ways, different from the one in Haiti. Haiti's temblor was concentrated, hit the capital city hardest, severely impaired the government and led to the challenge of tons of aid and hundreds of aid workers being sent into a small zone. This quake off the Chilean coast, and following tsunami, reached remote areas and thus it has been difficult to assess the full extent of damage and lives lost," said Geraldine Ryerson-Cruz, Media Communications Manager, International News, World Vision.

In the early stages of disaster relief, the needs in both countries are almost identical. Providing clean water, food, blankets and shelter are the top priorities.

After that, however, the differences appear. In Haiti, Cruz noted that the building and recovery would be at a massively different scale.

Ken Isaacs, Vice President Samaritan's Purse has spent the past month in Haiti heading up the efforts of Samaritan's Purse in Haiti, and will now transition to Chile.

"I arrived in Haiti nine days after the earthquake," he said. "I think I have been in the country for about five weeks."

Only a few hours after an earthquake hits, Samaritan's Purse teams begin to access their action plans. The organization is equipped to handle multiple disasters - often three or four - at once.

"Our primary focus in Haiti is to provide temporary shelter for as many people as we can. They are sleeping outside and exposed to the elements," Isaacs said. "We also have clean water initiatives, large feeding distribution programs and we were one of just a handful of NGO's (Non-governmental organizations) that was involved in the Food Surge as it was called by the World Food Program."

In three weeks, over 360,000 people in Port-au-Prince were fed and 1,500 tons of food were distributed. Other initiatives include cleaning up rubble with front loader dump trucks and providing from 7,000 to 10,000 temporary housing units. Samaritan's purse plans to be involved in the recovery efforts for a least two years.

In contrast, Chile's immediate recovery efforts are anticipated to last for several months. 

The Samaritan's Purse team arrived in Santiago Monday morning and heavily-damaged city of Concepción on Monday evening. They distributed several hundred blankets. Most importantly, they wanted to get people there on the ground to start organizing the efforts, evaluating the needs that remain to be met and making contact with partners there in the church.

Isaacs noted that the different responses to Chile and Haiti have to do with the countries' development.

While Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Chile is one of the world's largest copper producers and it is an industrialized and developed nation. Chile also has a lot of governmental capacity at the national and local levels. They have civil defense mechanisms, search and rescue mechanisms and a lot of experience in earthquake events. As a consequence, they have very stringent building standards.

"The damage is very significant, the loss of life is very significant, but had they not had stringent building standards and excellent search and rescue capabilities and the ability to get right out there and help people, the death toll (would have been a lot higher). That was a powerful, powerful earthquake," said Isaacs.

He continued, "The stigma that follows Haiti is one of corruption and inferior standards in building. What we've seen is widespread devastation by a 7.0 earthquake and a massive loss of life."

The Haitian government was clearly overwhelmed after January's earthquake. It could not respond because the disaster was so catastrophic and affected an area that is chronically impoverished as well as so densely populated.

"So what we're seeing is a very different kind of response and magnitude of disaster. Even though the earthquake in Chile was more powerful, yet Chile will fair better as a nation than Haiti has," Isaacs said.

Save the Children, a major humanitarian response agency, arrived in Chile on Tuesday, with team members coming in from Bolivia, the UK and Spain.

Kate Conradt Director, Media and Communications, Save the Children, echoed some of the differences between Chile and Haiti. She noted that Chile is a middle-income country with long experience with earthquakes and a history of disaster preparedness. Haiti's capacity to respond to disaster is far smaller. The small country has barely recovered from the four hurricanes and tropical storms that hit in late summer 2008.

Additionally, the Haiti quake hit the capital city, gutting the nation's ability (however weak) to respond. More than 200,000 people died, among them government officials, first responders, medical staff, administrators, teachers, etc. They lost buildings, equipment, files, systems, telecommunications, electricity, etc. Everyone in Port-au-Prince has been affected by the quake.

"For example, 70 percent of Save the Children's local staff have damaged or destroyed homes. The President's house was severely damaged, and he was forced to sleep outside the first couple of nights," Conradt said.

She said that another factor that has made a difference is that the construction practices differ greatly between the two countries - as does land ownership and the amount of people living in sub-standard housing and/or slums, which are very vulnerable to disasters.

Chilean officials expect the death toll will continue to rise as they survey more remote areas and continue relief efforts.